Artaic Pieces Together a Robot Revolution in Mosaic-Making

Mosaic has been a popular form of public art since Roman times, but the techniques behind it haven’t advanced much over the millennia. Assembling the glass, stone, or marble pieces of a mosaic, called tesserae, is still a manual process that takes even experienced craftspeople two to three hours per square foot. (If the artist is cutting her own tesserae, add another three to four hours to that.) At such painstaking rates, it’s a form of decoration few but the rich can afford.

But there’s an angel-funded startup in Boston that hopes to gradually change that, using a combination of custom graphics software, robotics, and classic assembly-line techniques. Ted Acworth, CEO of Artaic, says his company’s system will churn out mosaics at a rate of one square foot every six minutes, at a cost of around $150 per square foot—which is well below the $250 or more per square foot you’d have to shell out for a traditional mosaic.

Artaic Restaurant Installation — Conceptual IllustrationThat cost could drop over time as the robots get faster at placing tesserae. And because the process is software-driven, Artaic can make a mosaic from almost any image, such as a photograph, a painting, or even a historical work like the famous, 1,700-year-old Bikini Girls at Sicily’s Villa Romana del Casale (the subject one client has hired Artaic to reproduce in his bathroom).

“If you e-mail us a JPEG of your dog, we can make a mosaic out of it,” says Acworth. I’m crazy about my dog, so if I had the spare change I might actually consider it. But Artaic’s very first commission will depict a slightly more traditional subject: a sailboat. Based on a watercolor painting, the three-story-high, 500-square-foot mosaic will become the lobby centerpiece of a New York office building that was once a factory for fiberglass yachts. Acworth says production and installation could begin as early as July, depending on whether Artaic’s first robot is assembled and working by then.

Acworth says he first became interested in mosaic while traveling in Europe, and that he has been a student of the medium for a decade. It was when he considered installing mosaics in the bathrooms, kitchen, and patio of the new home he was building a few years ago that he was surprised to find out how complicated and expensive it could be. With a mechanical engineering PhD from Stanford and an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School, he started thinking about creating a company to apply automation to the process.

Artaic Wall — Conceptual IllustrationArtaic wasn’t his first company launch. While at MIT, Acworth was part of a team that developed a 3-D imaging technology that won seed funding from the then-new Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation and was a runner-up in MIT’s 2003 $50K Entrepreneurship Competition. The startup that he helped to create around the system—Brontes Technologies—won $10 million in venture funding from Bain Capital Group, Charles River Ventures, and IDG Ventures (now Flybridge Capital Partners) in 2004, and went on to be acquired by 3M two years later for $95 million.

With part of his proceeds from the sale, Acworth became one of his own angel investors at Artaic. The technology it’s developing has two main components: computer-aided design software that helps artists translate images into specifications for the placement of tesserae, and a high-speed robotic arm that takes over the manual labor of picking and placing tiles. The robot is designed to grab tiles as small as 3/8 of an inch across from up to 200 buffers, each one loaded with tiles of a different color, and lay them at the right spots at the rate of about two tiles per second. The one-square-foot tiles created by the robot are assembled on-site into a finished mosaic.

“Pick and place” robot arms are fairly common in industries such as food handling and packaging. But it’s a … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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