I love Artaic. They're revolutionizing a millennia-old art form (tile mosaics) using dead-simple pick-and-place robots, to create a successful "non-robotics company." Yet in my mind... they're the quintessential "robotics" company. I had cause to visit their headquarters in Boston last March, where I got a special tour by Artaic co-founders Paul Reiss (Creative Director) and Ted Acworth (CEO). Allow me to share their process, some of their beautiful mosaics, their unique outlook on robotics, and a quick sneak peak into advances coming down the pipeline.
Artaic was born organically. After selling his MIT-spinoff startup, Ted Acworth (a Stanford PhD and MIT-Sloan alum) was traveling extensively through Europe, where he "came across a number of museums and Roman archeological sites that had exquisite ancient mosaics on display." He fell in love with the art form, so naturally, "When Ted was building his home, he investigated mosaics as an option in the bathrooms, kitchen, and patio."
Acworth picked up mosaic-building as a hobby. But when he realized all the time effort they take to build, he thought "I could engineer a robot to do this.” Enter Artaic.
The short version:
In picture form:
This artsy video describes the process:
Here's a video of the robot during my visit:
This robot assembly is 10x faster (and less error-prone) than a human doing this by hand the "traditional" way. The resulting mosaics cost between $20-$140 per square foot, compared to $200-$400 per square foot using conventional methods. The direct result is that installations recently considered uneconomical by designers are now feasible. Let's look at some examples!
Here is an Artaic installation at Iowa State University made with over 200,000 1" tiles!
Some other large-scale installations:
Artaic also makes special LED backlit installations:
And owing to their unprecedented accuracy, they can even build QR code mosaics:
Honestly, I think the highlight of my visit was Ted Acworth's candor. Upon learning that I was a roboticist, I got the following reaction (paraphrased): "That's great, but we're not a robotics company. That's only a very small part of what we do... we are a tile company, with experts in this art form and this industry. We're more interested in exposing our products to industrial designers and architects than we are to roboticists."
I love this attitude! From a robotics perspective, Artaic is boring and not gimmicky -- they're focused on disrupting their industry rather than trying to "make cool robots." Frankly, they took one of the most ancient and boring tasks in robotics (pick-and-place) and built a novel, solid business. In the (paraphrased) words of Rod Brooks: the idea and robot are only 0.1% of a successful robotics company. Artaic seems to have figured out that other 99.9%.
Thinking about this a bit more... a competent roboticist should be able to easily build a rudimentary tile pick-and-place in a week or two using low-cost 3-axis CNC machines (eg. MakerBot). It might even be possible in a weekend using Gimp scripts and clever Lego pick and place (or a low-cost arm).
Furthermore, this idea has existed since at least 1999 (Ted tells me that Rod Brooks claims to have conceived of this idea even earlier), and there are competitors (eg. Mosaic4u -- video) even with the robotic mosaic-building space.
In 2011, Artaic was awarded a $150,000 SBIR Phase I grant to build a "high-throughput agile robotic manufacturing system for tile mosaics." They received a follow-on $500,000 SBIR Phase II grant in 2012 to push the system into production:
This Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I project will demonstrate a proof-of-concept prototype of a high-throughput agile tile mosaic manufacturing system. Mosaics have proven to be a great source of visual splendor for thousands of years. Despite its prominence in art and architecture, mosaic is arduous to design and assemble by hand. The goal of this Phase I work is to prove the feasibility of a programmable high-throughput multi-head robotic tile assembly system to enhance the production agility of mosaic tilings. Research innovation in Phase I will merge the benefits of parallel tile placement with robust high-capacity tile cartridges to radically decrease tile mosaic fabrication time and associated tile mosaic assembly costs. The measurable objective of Phase I is a 5x increase in production throughput over current state-of-the-art mosaic manufacturing technology, while enhancing tile placement accuracy. The system will be capable of producing both template and "mass customized" mosaics.
Without giving away any specifics, this new "multi-head robotic system" will probably be similar to an inkjet-printer or conveyor-like system (like in the chocolate fabrication facility shown below). Their goal is to achieve 5-10x additional efficiency.... hopefully bringing the cost of tile mosaics down to less than $20 per square foot!
I'm also told that Artiac is revamping their software (for faster and more flexible design), and that they're actively working on a system capable of working with non-uniform tiles (I imagine this is a tough vision / packing problem to do reliably!).
I'd like to give a heart-felt "thanks" to Paul Reiss for agreeing to meet with me and show me around. It was also great (fortuitous) to meet Ted Acworth. Thanks guys. Artaic seems to be a solid company doing great things with robots.
Someday, when I can think of a suitable subject, I plan to order one a small-ish (portable) LED backlit mosaic myself. Hopefully I can convince Artaic to provide a video of the robot construction process to include alongside the piece. I guess the roboticist in me still has a special place for the novelty of a robot-built mosaic. Heck, it would be even cooler to have a robot come and build the mosaic directly in my house... but I imagine that's still a ways off. ;-)
Side note: Apparently Rod Brooks has a Artaic mosaic in his bathroom. This little factoid helped me break the ice with Rod at his retirement gathering, my reason for being in Boston this March, where I met him for the first time. (~Travis, "Brooks Number" 22.2)