Making things can do more than increase GDP

Frequently, the media highlights the decline of manufacturing and the Government urges the need to reverse the trend but, the means to do so are proving elusive. Building manufacturing capacity is tough when banks don’t lend and SMEs are reluctant to train employees on core skills when the economy is so fragile. Perhaps a return to traditional crafts skills can be a cost effective way to build back the appetite and skills for manufacturing to prosper again.

Walking around Hull’s Old Town the other day I wandered into Oresome Jewellery Gallery on Humber Street and looked at the displays of locally crafted rings, pendants and all sorts of work in exotic metals and gem stones. In the workshop behind the gallery, I looked at a white board – a workshop with a group of students had just finished – noticing a sequence of words that I recognised: annealing; quenching; pickling; pumice and rolling mill. As the need for more manufacturing becomes more intense, we need to explore practical ways of doing this beyond the huge cost of building heavy manufacturing capacity. 

Oresome are committed to local craftsmanship and each one of them took me through different aspects of the process described on the white board. Years back, I had worked in Steel Mills across Europe from South Wales to Belgium and France. The sequence of making cold rolled steel coils was similar to the process that is used to make a ring: raw material came into the Pickler – an acid bath to sort out the molecules; moved to Annealing – to alter the material to make it more workable; the Temper Mills- to improve the surface finish before specific ; then, the Rollshop – to achieve exact tolerances and, add more finishing to order for clients like Metal Box and the canning factories at Coca Cola or wherever. There is nothing new under the sun. The invention of the rolling mill is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and there is evidence of introducing them from what is now Belgium into Britian in 1590.

It struck me that here in this jewellery shop lays part of the future for UK manufacturing. We need more engineers and more people to be interested to pursue careers in manufacturing but, as less people are employed in manufacturing and few job openings are available, we need to explore fresh ways of developing the appetite for manufacturing and, traditional craftsmanship may be the route forward.

We need more people to understand the process of manufacturing – as evidenced above, jewellery making in Hull could be a platform for understanding steel making in Scunthorpe. We need people to generate innovative manufactured products in order to compete on the world stage and generate more manufacturing jobs in the UK. Vicky Prince of Oresome is a specialist in computerised design – as applied to crafts like jewellery. A few weeks ago I was in Rotherham at the Advanced Metal Working facility to look at the revolutionary additive manufacturing process. Again, the principles being used to design components were similar to those used to design intricate jewellery.

Let’s go further back in the process. To work with materials – wood, metal, ceramics, etc – is an essential element of raising the appetite to work in manufacturing. It can play a huge role in developing innovative capacity as well. Nicola Chapman of Oresome speaks of how building skills improves the creative process. Richard Sennett, the renowned Sociologist, highlights the value of play, takes us back to childhood and the need to enable children to widen and learn from experience. He even extends this to the need for good parenting skills to ensure that children maximise their potential through play.

Sennetts provocative book makes plain that building a manufacturing base is not just about investment in the factories but investment in people from childhood. The benefits are huge.

Understanding how things work and how things combine can be a better source of product and process breakthroughs than blue sky thinking. In his book the Craftsman, Richard Sennett the renowned sociologist, plays down the mystery of inspiration and shows how intuitive leaps happen in how people respond to the actions of their hands or in the use of tools.

The Craftsman brings the various strands of these notes together. Championing the values of the craftsman whether making violins, jewellery, engineering or in a laboratory can teach valuable life skills as well as become the platform of a manufacturing revival. Gill Weaver, again, of Oresome, considers the experience of working with wood, metals, gemstones, ceramics and textiles can play a significant role in building self-confidence and enhance employability.

In recent months I have visited a number of craftsfolk who illustrate these points time and again. Work experience in this area can deliver economic, environmental and social benefits. We need to develop them more. There is a word of caution too. Craftsmanship takes pride in those skills that mature – it teaches us to be patient and not look for quick fixes. As Sennet puts it “slow craft time also enables the work of reflection and imagination – which the push for quick results cannot.

As we look to build our manufacturing capacity we should spend more time looking at the value of traditional craftsmanship in offering a wider group of young people the experience of a workshop; of the look and feel of materials and the inspiration that comes from improved techniques. You could do worse than walk down Humber Street and look at Oresome Gallery.


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2 Responses to Making things can do more than increase GDP

  1. rjb says:

    Henri Pirenne, the esteemed Historian and author of the seminal Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe, makes it plain: “Up to the 15thc the towns were the sole centres of commerce and industry to such an extent that none of it was allowed to escape into the open country. There was a sharp division of labour, the latter practising agriculture only, the towns were for trade AND THE MANUAL ARTS.” Economic & Social History of Medieval Europe (1936) p 169.

    The government is getting this wrong.

  2. rjb says:

    A soon to be released UK Culture Ministry Report states that crafts will no longer be considered part of the creative industries under proposals published by the UK government this week. What a tragedy and such a contrast with the thoughts set out in this post.

    The proposed change is part of a review of the UK’s creative industries set out in Classifying and Measuring the Creative Industries, a consultation paper released by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport yesterday [30.04.13]

    This piece contrasts starkly with the Culture Minister Ed Vaizey’s pending review of culture industries. “We recognise that high-end craft occupations contain a creative element, but the view is that in the main, these roles are more concerned with the manufacturing process, rather than the creative process,” says the paper.

    Arts and antiques will also be dropped from the list of recognised creative industries, while other categories will be merged into “broad creative industry groups”. See:

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