Art And Science

You need both art and science to be at your best in manufacturing.


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 What does it take for a shop to be successful? By coincidence, two of the articles in our February 2009 issue point to a combination of "art and science." An article called "3D Scanning: Reproducing One-Of-A-Kind Prototypes" discusses the "art" of designing optimized cylinder heads and the "science" of precisely replicating these designs. Likewise, another article, called "How One Shop Machines Advanced Ceramics," discusses the "art" of balancing the variables in ceramic part production and the "science" of machining these components. One reason these shops are successful, it seems, is that their art and their science empower each other. Thus, they are able to deliver a compelling level of creativity and productivity to customers.

Of course, this distinction between art and science is used figuratively. The "art" here is not exactly the Rembrandt- or Picasso-in-his-studio type of art. Likewise, the "science" here is not strictly the Einstein- or Edison-in-his-laboratory type of science. Yet, figurative references to the art/science dichotomy appear so often in technical literature that it is almost a cliché. Nonetheless, this usage hits upon something that is meaningful and important—so much so, that shops are advised to work harder at both the artistic and scientific elements of their operations.

So what kind of art are we talking about? What kind of science? In this context, art could be described as decision-making based on intuition and judgment. The validity of the decisions rests on personal experience and insight. These decisions tend to be particular and in the moment. Art is generally the work of individuals and usually involves actions guided by hand and eye. Taste and preference often enter into this equation.

The science that is distinguished from this kind of art could be described as decision-making based on the results of impartial tests. It seeks and expects predictable outcomes with time-and-time-again certainty. This kind of decision-making can be verified with measurements and comparisons to external standards. Science favors mechanical action and the work of machines. Automation is usually a benefit.

Despite these obvious differences, the art and science I’ve attempted to define are highly complementary. Both are powerful modes of mind over matter—two ways of imposing purposeful thought on physical objects. It’s natural that manufacturing, which adds value by transforming raw materials, should draw on "artistic" as well as "scientific" know-how. Shops that are strong in both art and science will be the most competitive.

The two articles also give a clue as to which one should be the priority. It’s clearly the art. Each article makes the point that the artistic skills vital to the respective shop take time to nurture and develop. Likewise, each article implies that the talent behind these skills is rather rare and remarkable. So get the art to be set apart.

The machine tools, laser scanners, programming software, cutting tools and supporting equipment, however, are not the exclusive possessions of either shop. Any enterprise can invest in this same technology and take advantage of its potential. It just might be the stroke of genius your shop is looking for.