Apprentice Robots

Industry 4.0 & Human Craftsmanship

This project is based on speculative practices in design and aims to envision a social-technological perspective on the possible role of an Apprentice in coming future.
It started as an discursive exercise between me and Dhruv Saxena ( Product Designer ). The below shown slide deck was the output of the discourse we had over the span of 3 months. Also, you can read Dhruv’s article on this project here. After the slide deck is the concept note, i have prepared to guide our investigation on the subject of industry 4.0 & human craftsmanship. This project is under progress for further research & exploration.

Concept Note


We’re drifting into an era of digitisation of manufacturing, being hailed as the Industry 4.0, another revolution in comparison to the industrial revolution of the past. This transition will transform the way our products are brought into existence. It will not only change the conception of product ideas but also bring in man-made intelligent entities into the process – artificial intelligence & robotic systems. The possibilities will be limited only by the resources available for the automation & digitisation of a process.

In that space, where will an independent or small scale ‘Artisan’ stand ? Such an Artisan gives form to the ideas using the tools and the skill refined over a lifetime. Presently, this precious skill along with the traditional craftsmanship are barely holding up with the pace of automation & mechanisation for product manufacturing. 

How will this craftsmanship get augmented with the oncoming of Industry 4.0 ? Will it be dependent on the tools provided by digital giants ? What type of work model exist in the new ecosystem ? Will there be any scope for conserving the rare human skill & knowledge of the artisan ? Will there be parity for the small players in the market ?


This project is an exploratory work on the state of artisans in the industry 4.0. Our approach to the topic will be based on speculative design practices with emphasis on the technological trends, socio-economic justice & design fiction. The expected outcome will be guidelines, work model & new ecosystems for the survival of the craftsman.


The project scope will be limited to the handcrafting practices existing in various traditional crafts. To further narrow down our focus we have put down certain guiding principles to be kept in mind while doing the research :


i) The Craftsman should be profited from using this system. [ craftsman-to-market relation]

ii) The skill of the craftsman should be preserved, curated  and protected as his/her human legacy. [craftsman-to-heritage & craftsman-to-identity relation]

iii) The skill should be shareable with other creators through the interface of data points. [ craftsman-to-craftsman relation]

iv) The Machine should act as an apprentice to the craftsman or the creators. [ craftsman-to-machine relation]

For the initial research, we will be taking the Wood Turning Craftsman as our subject.


Humans have used the power of machines as an enhancement at first and later as replacement for the muscle labour. And with the onset of digital memory, even the cognitive labour is getting enhanced and replaced with time. To a creator , this may seem to clip their wings of imagination; rather it is an expansion of the imaginarium.

Technology may replace mundane and even creative human effort progressively, but this progression should be decided by the creators. To achieve this we envision the future workshops where the machine acts as ‘an apprentice to the artisan’. Each artisan works with their apprentice with varied levels of engagement & learning from the master & preserving his/her legacy within the memory of machines. This type of work-space can be flexible as per each craftsman choice.

To take up further this view of the future – we have to investigate 3 important questions :

  1. Who or what is an Apprentice ? 
  2. What (skill) gets transferred from a master to an apprentice ?
  3. What are the offered choices for the artisan to operate his or her workshop ?
[ Further research required on the lines of – interviews with apprentice & masters – to define the role of an apprentice & knowledge/skills which gets transferred in the process ] [ Possible discursive workshops with practitioners – if the machine is an apprentice & we know the skill being transferred then what different types of workshop scenarios may occur ]

Who is an Apprentice ? What does he do with the master ? What he learns from the master ? What is the medium of his learning ? And what happens when he/she finishes the apprenticeship ? 

An apprentice learns by practising with the master. It learns in increments and the master acts as a guide to polish the skill of the apprentice. So in the context of the trending technologies – the machine learning algorithms acts as such. It learns incrementally from a training data set & then it learns to process the non-training data set. Over time with better data & tuning, the efficiency of the algorithms will increase.

In the case of a wood turner artisan, a simple camera can read the data set from the artisan, taking care of the training part. 

[ An array of data sources & data quality-quantity parameters need to be setup ]

From the above concept – we have a stream of enquiries which we need to answer through this exercise. We have put down these enquiries down below to create a compass for further research.


How to figure out the practice part of an Apprentice ?
To do this we can try using the Robotic hands instead of cnc machines. The robotic hands can simulate with more reality the actions of the human master. To test the accuracy of the output we can put in a 3d model of an object for the robotic hand to recreate – and see how the hand performs in comparison to the actual master.

Now arises a question of whether this data set be termed as  ‘Skill’ ? 

and then this difference in the soft 3d render & actual production of the object – is this the human skill ? 

Are we comparing the errors in making these finish as human skill, [ i.e. To err is to be human ]

And since we are able to create these skill profiles of a human master – can these be re-used by another robotic apprentice present anywhere in the world  ? If the answer to this question is yes then how can we use this for the benefit of the human master ? 

Should we create a marketplace for such profiles which can be brought by other creators from the web ? How will this marketplace work ?

And how secure should this profile bank be – should we use tokenization to protect this ? 

And does this human skill profile be saved as a legacy of the humans ? 

And if over a period if there are a lot of skill profiles — can Robots themselves become masters ? And start making their own styles of wood turning ?

Further if these Robots become the master — who will be the Apprentice to them – a human or another robot ? At the end the medium to preserve the human skill will become the medium to affect the future human skill.

This Project is an ongoing excursion in the space of future of craft in india. We will be updating it from time to time. Thanks for reading.