Where Einstein Meets Edison

Robots as Artists: Boston-based Startup Makes Art with Robots

Robots as Artists: Boston-based Startup Makes Art with Robots

Mar 19, 2011

By Grace Young and Angelique Nehmzow

Would you buy a piece of art made by a robot? Ted Acworth, founder and CEO of Boston-based Artaic, bets you would. His company sells custom-made mosaics assembled by a robot. Mosaic is a centuries-old art form involving many tiles organized in complex patterns that decorate floors, walls, and ceilings. It is traditionally very labor-intensive and expensive, putting mosaics out of reach for most homeowners and commercial clients. But Acworth’s company has changed all that. Artaic’s robot assembles custom mosaics in a tenth of the time and for a fraction of the cost required to make a handcrafted mosaic. His company is currently finishing a large Artaic mosaic composed of nearly 150,000 colored tiles at MIT’s Koch Institute.

Artaic mosaics are highly versatile and customizable. Artists and customers can design a mosaic either tile-by-tile or by uploading an image using free software. They can also select different types of tile so that the mosaic is suitable for the floor of a hotel lobby, the lining of a swimming pool or fountain, or the wall of a kitchen. The robot then pieces together uniformly-sized square tiles imported from all over the world with an “arm” that picks up each tile by suction and then secures it in a 1×1 foot array. The arrays fit together during installation to form a complete mosaic. Artaic’s process not only makes this art form available to a larger customer base by significantly lowering production cost and time, but it also enables the customer to become the artist himself.

Acworth began developing the mosaic-making robot and business plan for his company while he was a Sloan Fellow at MIT. “The day after graduation I was full time starting the company,” he said, “with a minor detour hosting two seasons of ‘UFO Hunters’ on History Channel.” Acworth’s inspiration for his company is based on his long-term love of mosaic art, describing it as “tangible, durable, and classic.” He said that he finally discovered the opportunity to apply his high tech background in precision mechanics and imaging with this art medium to make it more accessible when he built his house. Does he consider himself an artist? “I like to think my ‘art’ is machine design, system design, and business design. But in the traditional sense, no, I’m not an artist.” Yet his unique combination of art and robotics produces beautiful artwork every day.

Founded in 2007, Artaic first targeted commercial customers as the quickest way to generate revenue and profit. When the 2008 recession slowed the commercial market, however, Acworth expanded into the residential market, predicting it would recover faster than the commercial market. Artaic’s residential line, Mosaic Loft, sells low-cost, pre-designed mosaic patterns through Home Depot. “The global recession hit real estate very hard,” Acworth explained, “on ‘Lehman Day,’ which was the day we made our first sale, the market collapsed. We had to change our strategy from a ‘high growth’ model to a ‘survive’ model. Flat was the new up. We ended up doing OK; sales were up 36% in 2010.” In the first two months of this year, Artaic’s year-to-date sales already exceed their total 2010 sales.

Acworth’s future plans for the company include building a new, more specialized robot to handle their increasing number of orders, and launching an application on Home Depot’s website that will allow customers to order mosaics online. A customer could upload an image, which would convert into a readable pattern for the robot, and order directly online. Artaic will ship the resulting mosaic directly to the customer. Acworth’s vision of using robots to bring affordable mosaics to the mass market is fast becoming an exciting reality.

Grace Young

About

Grace Young is an undergraduate at MIT majoring in ocean engineering, with interests in robotics, physics, computer science, and architecture. Last summer she worked at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution building autonomous aircraft for ocean surveying. The summer before she worked at CERN, the large hadron collider, developing software for particle physicists, and at the Harvard-MIT Biomedical Cybernetics Lab in Boston applying statistical methods for bioinformatics. Her other work experience includes quantum computing research at The Joint Quantum Institute and analysis of electrical properties of carbon nanotubes at Johns Hopkins. She is a member of MIT’s varsity sailing team, Gordon Engineering Leadership Program, and Arts Scholar Program. She is also the 2012-2013 recipient of MIT’s Robert Bruce Wallace Academic Prize in Ocean Engineering.