Around the world governments are hoping that Industry 4.0 will give us the boost to productivity which has been missing in many of the world’s economies since the financial crash of 2008. Rising productivity across services and manufacturing is needed if the standard of living in a country is going to steadily improve.
To achieve this we will see a relentless move towards the automation and mechanisation of all processes. We learned from the first industrial revolution and in particular the concept of interchangeable parts that this came with a significant level of de-skilling of the work force. Tasks are broken down into their elements and workers, or machines, are trained to do only one or two of the tasks involved.
This highlights a dilemma that has lived with the leather industry all through history. Where is the boundary between leather as a craft and leather as an engineered product?
This is not so easy to answer. With an almost infinite number of uses for leather there are many, past and present – armour, industrial belting, hosepipe material, gas meter leathers, oil seal, sports and military gloving, where performance is vital and cannot be compromised. At the other end of the scale usually more focussed on personal goods hand crafted quality is what gives special value to leather and leather using items.
The one area in this that does require consideration might be termed imperfection. The actor and new member of the British Royal family, the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle has freckles and asks when being prepared for a TV appearance that they should not be hidden. While these are a skin imperfection they are considered a natural imperfection that in fact enhances her beauty.
Some time back in history tanners started to inspect hides soon after the hair or wool was removed and made decisions about quality. Items with defects such as pinhole, healed or open scratches became classed as lower grades and put through process routes that included buffing, heavy pigment coating and printing. In some areas of business where tanners made only one leather type grading diminished and even relatively clean hides rushed through this route. The problem that is created is that such leathers soon become a commodity, and in some instances the consumer gets confused with plastic.
When it comes to these oil based materials that compete with leather one of the selling points is that they come in sheets totally free of all blemishes and this make them easier to handle in automated systems.
This is even a claim being made by some of the newer, non plastic materials, which are currently gaining press coverage. For example the World Economic Forum (WEF), has included Modern Meadow’s Zoa amongst its 2018 Technology Pioneers. Modern Meadow says “the material has none of the defects found in traditional hides, resulting in significantly reduced waste for manufacturers.” (quoted by Biobased World News).
Throughout my careers tanners have worried about this attitude to the demand for a perfect grain surface. In most cases blemishes make no difference to the technical performance of the leather in use, or to its durability. Downgrading a natural material because of these feels wrong. Some defects are perhaps different. It is generally felt that brands and open scars are defects of husbandry and we should pressure the farming community to avoid them in the interest of animal welfare as much as better leather.
However, outside of those specific areas perhaps we should behave more like the Duchess of Sussex and enhance our hide and skin blemishes on the basis of honesty, integrity and, indeed beauty. As an Italian tanner explained to me a little while ago after a month or so of use no two handbags will be the same. The way the owners use them, hold them, touch them will inevitably slightly change the way the grain folds as well as the surface patina on the leather. This does not mean they are wearing out: more often than not use enhances the beauty of the leather and highlights that it is a natural material full of character.
Deficiencies are signs of life, sources of beauty
One hundred and fifty years ago the Arts and Crafts movement in Europe had similar feelings as they saw the output of Industry 1.0 producing identical items they felt were lacking in soul. The writer John Ruskin wrote at length in the Art of Gothic and other works about this subject. He thought imperfection was in a way essential in our life. “In all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty…….. and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyse vitality”.
Somewhere in the complexity of all that makes up Industry 4.0 – the data mining, artificial intelligence, robotics and the like – we will need to consider how to retain our leather as a hero and avoid the slippery slope into commodities. One underlying concept of Industry 4.0 rests in working towards a batch size of one, and this offers hope that craftsmanship of eye and hand can be retained.
Yet we must not use an over commitment to craft to avoid investing in people and plant, and consider poor working conditions an essential part of tradition. Great leather has great workers who recognise the value of their raw material at its core, whatever the level of automation a tannery chooses.
Perhaps Ruskin had the final say when he said “There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.”