AI & Craftsmanship: Should You Be Worried?

The Rise Of AI

What kicked off the recent debate and mania around AI? Starting in 2022, AI moved from being only accessible to the big tech companies to being usable by us – the ‘everyday’ people. We can now interact with it through the likes of ChatGPT, DALL-E 2, and Chrome extensions or Bing – for free or at a low cost.

It may have leapt into our consciousness only recently, but AI is not that new. Back in 2013 Google quietly made it known that they were making use of ML, an important AI technology, to improve their search results. We’ve all been using auto-correct spelling, grammar apps, auto-complete suggestions and Google Translate for some years now, with often hilariously off-beam results.

With Goldman Sachs predicting that AI could replace 300 million jobs, and the OECD saying in July 2023 that we’re on the brink of an “AI revolution which could fundamentally change the workplace”, there has been a lot of chatter about AI’s effect on job roles.

There is a high probability that AI will be useful to all of us in some way, and it’ll probably change much about how we research, gather information, and explore our ideas. Richard Sine writes on Forbes that, going into the future “Workers…[will use] their uniquely human skills like creativity and innovation to refine AI generated concepts”

Some Things Change, Others Endure

Many low-paid manufacturing jobs have been sent abroad or automated over the past 80 years. What has not only survived but thrived in the UK during this period is high craftsmanship and innovation. It is these high-end skills that are never likely to be adversely affected by AI, due to Moravec’s paradox – that a one-year-old human can outperform the most advanced AI or robot when it comes to perception and mobility. These are just some of the skills and attributes that make us so different from computers, yet they are so easy (for us), that we take them for granted.

New Product Testing And Innovation

Before going into automated production runs, most products go through a proof-of-concept stage where a human will perform the highly complex task of simultaneously creating a product that is both desirable and makable. AI can produce creative new concepts, but doesn’t have the experience and creative foresight to see how these might be physically produced. Dies, templates and prototypes are still made by hand even if AI, CNC and robots can be assistants, or used for full-scale production.

A Celebration Of British Craftmanship

It’s time to celebrate the superlative skills of our nation’s craftspeople.

From Harris Tweed to advanced manufacturing of innovative products, we find craft skills essential to success. Experienced, skilled staff are to be found performing tasks that can’t be practically or commercially automated in both traditional trades and cutting-edge innovative work. Where the highest quality is sought, where expensive materials are used, or where the stakes are high, you can expect the work to be entrusted to human hands for many years to come. Where AI becomes useful, it will be an assistant to us, rather than our master.

Here’s Where Craftmanship Will Out-Perform AI For Many Years To Come

As we see it, there are plenty of specialised jobs that are inherently dependent on craftsmanship.

We start with two trades that encompass multiple craftsmanship skills; working with timber, leather, metal, lacquer, and the finest of engineering – Marine and Automobile crafting.

Boatbuilding

British handcrafts abound in the boatyards around our coast. Peter Freebody began his apprenticeship in 1950 and founded a boat-building business that’s keeping the art of clinker wooden hull building alive to this day. His son and daughters work with a team of craftspeople using traditional tools and skills. The ‘brightwork’ deck fittings begin as wooden patterns, from which brass castings are taken using the lost wax process.

Down to Cornwall, we find Ben Harris building wooden yachts and dinghies, whilst in Falmouth Cockwells do custom-built superyacht launches and restoration using the best of modern tech, advanced materials, traditional crafts, and fine timbers.

Luxury Car Manufacturing

The impressive line-up of luxury and niche British car-makers employ many highly skilled crafts. Aston Martin, Bentley, Lotus, and Morgan are just some of the more well-known. Bentley Motors alone employs thousands of skilled hand-workers at their factory in Crewe, England, with the vast majority of their car parts and trim made by hand. This is not simply down to tradition, but due to their quest for dimensional perfection, which they believe can be seen and felt in the final product. Bentley uses instruments that measure to half a micron – a tenth the thickness of a red blood cell, but a human finger sliding across a surface can feel a difference of as little as 0.013 microns (13 nanometres). Whilst the technology of haptics is making strides in human-machine interfaces, its need for multiple sensors and actuators that can match our own natural sense of feel makes it a very expensive and clumsy game.

Rolls Royce in Goodwood only has four robots; these are used to achieve the most precise layers of paint to the main bodywork, whilst difficult-to-reach parts are hand-sprayed before the famous coachline stripes are painted meticulously on by master-painter Mark Court. It takes 3 hours to paint each 5m coachline, which is a perfectly hand-painted 3mm width. Over 500 parts are hand-welded to make the frame, which is then fitted to the hand-assembled engine before the carpenters and trimmers do their careful work.

All the veneer in every Rolls Royce is sourced ethically from a single tree and mirror matched around the car. It takes the woodcraft team a month to shape, lacquer and polish the wooden trim parts, whilst over 200 pieces of leather are hand-stitched together.

“We rely on the best camera in the world, that’s your eye. There’s nothing better resolution-wise, than the eye” says Brian Staite, Rolls Royce leather shop general manager.

And that’s after 100 years of camera technology improvements!

Leather Workers

According to leatherworker and bookbinder Jeff Peachey, leather is three-dimensional which makes it both a joy and a challenge to work with. He points out that tools become an embodiment of the craft-person, an extension of their hand as they pare and cut the leather; something many craftspeople will relate to. British leather workers produce some of the finest shoes, clothing, saddlery and upholstery. Gavin Bielawski is a 3rd generation leatherworker and upholster at Sheffield Trimming Co, performing car interior trim repairs and recovers. Their most advanced machine is probably the air-powered stapler, yet their professional finish and speed of turn-around is evidenced by many repeat clients and 5-star reviews.

Bed Manufacturing

Many processes in bed and mattress manufacturing rely on handwork such as side-stitching, tufting and sewing machine operation. The industry has remained strong in the UK, with large companies such as Dreams (West Midlands), Sleepeezee (Kent), Sealy (Cumbria), Hypnos (Buckinghamshire), Silent Night (Lancs), Harrison Spinks and Shire Beds (Yorkshire) performing increasing well over imported brands.

Wooden Furniture And Timber Work

Whilst mass-produced timber flooring can be given a rustic look by running it through a texturing machine, seventh-generation oak flooring business Charles Lowe takes hand-tool traditions seriously. Every floorboard is hand planed so that their craftsmen can “read” the grain, touching and feeling their way until the silky-smooth oak comes “alive with iridescence.” Only a human hand and eye could work with the naturally varying timber like this, recognising that moment of beauty, when it’s time to lay down the tool and pull out the next board to work on. “Automation will never compare to the personal touch of seasoned experts” according to the Lowes.

Clothing And Footwear Manufacturing By Hand

In the luxury, up-market clothing world, British hand-made clothing and shoes are exported worldwide, with the USA and Middle East being key markets. There are plenty of companies in the “100 Club” – those over 100 years old – making garments largely by hand such as Yarmouth Oilskins, with growing a number of modern brands such as Fortis – a Devon farming family turned clothing manufacturer.

Whilst mass-produced footwear is reported to discard 25-35% of leather and textile materials (Afirm-Group), hand-crafting these materials tends towards more sustainable use and consideration of the product life-cycle.

Craftmanship’s Contribution To The UK Economy

Craftmanship is found in many industries and professions; surgeons, carpenters, car manufacturing, the list goes on. The ability to ‘think with your hands’ (also called “Hand Knowledge”) is something that is transferable across many careers – an orthopaedic surgeon from the Royal Glamorgan Hospital reportedly placed his juniors in a carpenter apprenticeship, such are the similarities between these ‘crafts’. This, coupled with innate creativity, makes craftspeople very resilient and adaptable.

Carved Stone Craft

(left) “Reach for the Light” and “The Gem Stane” (right)
Hand carved stone sculptures by craftsman Mark Powers. Photos used with permission.

The Gem Stane The 7 Stanes Scotland 2008 2 scaled

Research by the Crafts Council and cited by the Creative Industries Council reports that “craft” adds £3.4bn GVA to the national economy, £5bn of exports and employs nearly 150k people. Between 2006 and 2020, the number of UK consumers buying “craft” increased from 6.9m to 31.6m, with a four-fold increase in objects sold, according to polled data.

Leather upholster prepares to hand cut on a Rhino cutting mat

So, as we continue to experiment with the use of AI as another possible tool in the commercial kitbag, let’s at the same time take a moment to celebrate the craftsperson, traditional cutting knife in hand, because they too are part of our industrial future!

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