You can hear the whirring of the robotic arm as you enter the office. They call it Arty, and it works nonstop all day, picking and placing colorful, smooth tiles into 12-by-12-inch squares. A worker stands behind Arty and feeds the tiles into the machine. Then he picks up each square when it's done to shake all the tiles into place.
This is Artaic, a Boston-based startup that manufactures beautiful mosaic designs similar to those made throughout history. But the way this company creates its art is different, using technology systems and robots to produce thousands of patterns.
"It's really a system that's our solution. People see the robot and go 'oh, that's so amazing,' and it's true, but the robot simply picks and places tile," says Ted Acworth, founder and CEO of the company. "There's a huge amount more that has to get processed and done technologically before that tile gets picked and placed."
How Artaic automates mosaic-making
When Artaic was founded in 2007, Acworth saw a need for a faster, more efficient way to produce mosaic designs, which historically was a long, labour-intensive process. He said technology was the key to disrupting the age-old method of making mosaics.
"It was when I looked at the tile industry [and] realised it's a huge market," he says. "People settle for boring tile because it's too expensive to get beautiful, more artistic tile, [but] technology can enable more people to get more beautiful tile."
To start the process, the company uses CAD software to design custom and prepackaged mosaics. A customer can send Artaic a photo of anything, from a landscape to a celebrity. That image is then manipulated into a mosaic design for anything from a hotel lobby to a restaurant to a pool.
Then the manufacturing process begins. Tiles are fed into long clear tubes and lined up for Arty. The tubes are then placed into Arty so it can begin picking and placing tiles into the correct pattern.
Once a square is completed, a clear backing is placed on top, sealing in all the tiles. That's the finished product and all the squares are shipped to the customer for installation.
If a mistake is made somewhere along the assembly line, Artaic's ERP system allows workers to retrace their steps and quickly reproduce a specific square of the design.
Goodwin recalls a time when an installer called Artaic to say a section label had been put on the tile square upside down, causing them to install that particular square upside down. "We actually went back through our IT system and had the section labeled right there, photographed and everything," he says. "No matter what happened there, we were able to reproduce that [section] overnight and get the installation done."
What's next for Artaic?
The company mostly produces designs that are made up of straight rows of tiles, but Artaic recently won a research grant from the National Science Foundation to work on software that creates designs that are freeform, with curves, where tiles are cut into specific shapes to fit a pattern.
Acworth is working on getting his next-generation robot to do work 10 or 20 times faster than a human, which he hopes will disrupt the mosaic manufacturing market. In other words, his company could be more competitive with a market like China that is able to produce mosaics cheaply using human workers.
"That gets us to price parity with made in China," Acworth says. "We could be competing at a cost structure you get by offshoring to China, but doing it in Boston, in the United States, with skilled people doing custom for our clients. That would be kind of an amazing tipping point for us."