In the old days, if someone's first efforts at woodworking were not successful, we implored them to practice their skills, take lessons, and/or seek professional help to have the work done. These days, the challenged woodworker might just throw down his chisels and turn to a computer. That's what Alec Rivers, a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did, and the result is invention of what may be the first successful handheld CNC router.
I just love this story! It is so emblematic of our times and the power of new technology. Hand skills rarely come quickly. How long did it take you to learn how to hand-cut joinery like dovetail joints that fit perfectly? That's, of course, if you ever learned that skill at all. We've gone from long apprenticeships and learning curves for hand skills to jigs and fixtures and machine tools, and finally on to computer design and manufacturing solutions. Of course, there is still a learning curve on the technology, but the interesting thing is that the hard mental work of figuring out the technological solution has substituted for the hard physical and mental work of developing hand skills.
I just finished reading "The Village Carpenter," a wonderful memoir of woodworking in the Victorian Age that was recently reissued (see my review here). The juxtaposition of that book with this new development from MIT is just astounding. It begs the question of what are the necessary skills for today's woodworker. In the past, we looked for people who were skilled with their hands, had naturally good spatial reasoning, and had enough math skills that they could read a tape measure and make basic calculations. But today, somebody can build a houseful of cabinets and furniture without ever personally cutting a joint. All the real work is done at the computer, working out designs and cutting programs. Then the only physical labor left is to load raw material into a CNC machine, unload parts, assemble them, and ship them. Depending on site specifics, members of an installation crew might still have to be skilled with hand tools to properly install the finished work, but even there, the skills requirements are decreasing.
I admire the genius of Alec Rivers and his MIT team and their invention. I would love to try it out. But the whole story still makes me a little sad as I look at the shelf of carefully tuned and sharpened hand planes and chisels in my shop.