Technology and tradition

It’s obvious that technology has had a pervasive impact on our lives in the last two decades. Largely, this has been a positive development – who would return to relying on snail mail, or queuing outside phoneboxes?

With that said, it’s important to remember our heritage. J Rotherham, which was established in 1927, remains vastly appreciative of its rich past and of the traditional skills involved in producing high-quality stonework.

The challenge facing the company over the recent past has been developing its offering to vault the hurdles of the future, while retaining that crucial link to those who went before them.

Craftsmanship, style and the personal touch are still worth paying for, with consumers happy to pay a premium to get a bespoke fireplace or worktop.

So how do J Rotherham reconcile these apparently contradictory demands?

Working in tandem

In reality, the answer is that modern technology and the time-honoured craft of stonemasonry are able to co-exist.

Commercial director Matt Rotherham even draws a parallel with the work carried out by legendary artist Michelangelo, who would have used apprentices for the early stages of his own sculptures before producing his own inimitable work.

“The robot is essentially a mechanical assistant to the mason. The Rolls Royce factory provides a good comparison – they have four robots in place to enhance efficiency, but still draw primarily on the superior finishing skills provided by the time-honoured craftsmanship the company is known for,” he explains.

To compete with their international rivals, firms need to take advantage of the best technology available to them. J Rotherham’s so-called ‘robot’ is a state-of-the-art machine that allows the company to produce stunning stonework to previously unachievable timescales.

Dave Campleman, a technical specialist with J Rotherham, explains that the robot really excels when more than one item is being produced, as the main time drain involved in using it comes from entering an initial programme.

“For example, this statue will take around a week to carve, whereas a human would take several months – I’d probably estimate around six months from commissioning it, for a mason to start from scratch, what the robot will do in a week,” Matt adds.

This remarkable uptick in productivity is one of the undeniable boons of technological advancement. But it would be a mistake to think that stonemasons are completely out of the picture.

Devil’s in the detail

“While it’s an incredibly efficient and complicated machine, there’s a point at which the speed of the mechanical device like the robot we’ve got – there’s a crossover period where actually it becomes more efficient once again for the human carver to take over and finish off the actual statue,” the commercial director explains.

Technology can supplant and help industry – but for certain tasks, it still makes more sense to send in a talented, experienced worker.

J Rotherham has its roots in England’s famous quarries – its founder, Henry Rotherham, started off as a quarryman in the 1890s before establishing his own company, working on commissions across Yorkshire as a skilled jobbing mason.

Although far fewer stonemasons are now at work in the UK than there would have been in Henry’s day, it remains a respected and difficult trade, and one that is crucial to the company’s desire to produce the best possible products for their clients and customers.

Matt admits that the business couldn’t function without technology, but is proud of its illustrious history.

“If we don’t have the fundamental knowledge of working stone, which comes from decades of understanding the hand craftsmanship, then the two just don’t work; you end up with an incongruous mix. You’ve got to understand that finesse and the detailing that goes into producing it by hand,” he explains.

Symbiotic relationship

By developing a symbiotic relationship between machine and workers – understanding the limitations of each, as Matt puts it – J Rotherham has been able to go into the 21st century with its head held high.

To slightly misquote Edmund Burke, those who don’t learn from their past are unable to move forward. Both Matt and Dave understand the power of their heritage but also the demands of the present, hoping that J Rotherham can continue as a market leader for another hundred years and more.