Craft with Technology

[h5]Uniting Traditional Manufacture and Modern Technology [/h5]

Karkhana is a fresh and innovative makerspace in Kathmandu, Nepal.  We believe that the future is already here, there is just an uneven distribution of it. Karkhana’s mission is to educate and inspire, enabling the future to be redistributed to even the remotest corners of the world.

 In addition to running electronics workshops in schools and developing new, intuitive software, we are currently collaborating with international designers and local artisans to develop new products that combine traditional Nepali craft and modern technology.

I have just arrived from London where I am studying Innovation Design Engineering. My first project as Karkhana’s design resident is to work with the traditional crafts men in the Kathmandu Valley and see how these skills and process can evolve with and potentially unite with modern technology.

Today we met with Tejesh Man Shakya, a 5th generation metal-casting craftsman and a professor at School of the Arts University, Kathmandu. This unique combination of professions has brought about a very interesting development to Tejesh Man Shakya’s traditional casting techniques. We spent the morning in his workshop, learning about his family’s business, and became inspired by his visions for the future of the casting craft. He has begun to explore how the traditional art and sculpture based approach could be used to create accurate engineering components. He proudly showed us his most recent creation, a fully functioning turbine using the traditional lost wax casting.  However he has added a unique twist to the process.

  1.  To ensure the turbine is totally accurate; he produced one 3D printed plastic turbine blade.
  2.   He then cast the 3D blade in silicone rubber.
  3.  Once the rubber has set he cuts out the 3D blade, leaving a perfect cavity in the silicone.
  4. He can then pour black beeswax (the material used in traditional techniques) into the cavity.
  5. Once the wax has set he can repeat the wax casting process innumerable times, creating many identical wax blades.
  6.  He then connects 5 blades together, via wax rods,
  7. And sets it into dung/mud and straw.
  8.  He leaves the mud to dry for a few weeks.
  9.  Once it is fully dry he heats the metal in a coal kiln and pours the molten metal into the wax filled cavity in the mud mould.
  10.  The heat of the metal liquefies the wax, which pores out, leaving the metal to cool and set inside.
  11.   Finally the dung/mud mould is broken away leaving 5 metal turbines. He can repeat steps 5 -11 many times, with little skill and cost required, producing many identical blades.

Making turbine

 This extraordinary union between modern, manufacturing technology and traditional, skilled craftsmanship is exciting and ground breaking.  Lost wax casting is an ancient process found in many civilizations and has transferred well into modern industrial practice. However the use of cheap dung, mud and straw moulds is unique to Nepal. Therefore it is this particular approach of 3D printing and mud moulds that enables very high levels of precision and repeatability that is required for modern engineering and comes at an affordable price, within the Nepali industry.

Having worked in various countries around Asia and Africa I have seen many types of traditional craft. Although these products retain a lot of aesthetic, emotional and historical value they are unsustainable and limited with in the global market. I feel that perhaps the future lies in retaining the value of traditional local skills, but creating a hybrid between old and new. Recently I read a paper suggesting that globally, mass manufacture items are becoming less appealing, with the likely growth of limitless personalization at the production stage coming from 3D printed consumer goods. In markets where there is a level of discretionary disposable income, there is an increasing desire for bespoke items.

During my more touristic wonderings in Nepal, I realised that craftsmen produce products mainly for the tourist market. Although the profit margin is high, it is not sustainable long term. I feel that to ensure these crafts and skills are not lost it is imperative to embed new technologies within them, enabling them to evolve into far richer methods of manufacture.  It is not simply access to new technology that secures sustainability but the capacity of these traditional technologies and craftsmen to respond flexibly to any technological opportunity, old or new, to develop new products to exploit new markets.  A capacity to be flexible and to innovate is the key to sustainability.

I feel that my country- England, and many other First World countries have long lost their traditional craft industries and with it many skills. I hope and believe that this new and exciting hybrid method will produce more versatility and value in manufacturing line, making traditional communities a hotbed for innovative new age manufacture.

It was very exciting and liberating to see his work and the potential for other crafts , skills and techniques to transcend to other areas. The combination of 3D printing and lost wax casting is an ideal example showing how two distinct methods become one, and how a traditional craftsman has embraced modern technologies. Karkhana is now in the process of exploring other crafts, to see how uniting heritage and contemporary can provide inspiration for a new age Nepali product.