Mosaic Design Gets Assist From Robotics and Enterprise Software

Mosaic design is an ancient art form, but Artaic, a Boston-based startup, is automating the manufacturing process by integrating robotics, CAD and ERP.

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Meet Artaic

Artaic is a Boston-based startup that manufactures beautiful mosaic designs similar to those that have been produced throughout history. What’s different is that the company creates its art using technology and robots to produce thousands of patterns. Ted Acworth, Artaic’s founder and CEO, formed the company in 2007 after seeing a need for a faster, more efficient way to build mosaic designs, which historically has been a labor-intensive process.

“I looked at the tile industry [and] realized 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.”

Read CIO.com's article on Artaic and watch our video on how Arty, the robot, speeds up the mosaic manufacturing process.

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Getting Started

To start the process, Artaic’s customers can send a photo of anything from a landscape to a celebrity, or they can choose from a list of prepackaged mosaic designs. The customer can also select a range of tile types, such as sintered glass or unglazed porcelain.

“It really starts with finding the opportunity where an interior designer wants to use mosaic tile, preferably custom,” says Blake Goodwin, director of sales and operations at the company. “About half the time they will look at our design inspirations that we’ve developed with our software in-house.”

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Managing the Supply Chain

Artaic buys its tiles from suppliers that all located around the world, which can make it challenging to manage the supply chain. The company doesn’t keep a lot of material in inventory so even if it can manufacture a mosaic in a few days, ordering a specific tile from Italy or Turkey, for example, may take a few weeks, which can hold up the project.

“Managing inventory under those constraints requires new ways of planning flows and supply chain logistics,” Acworth says. “We’re working on trying to have more of the right material on hand, so that we have a higher confidence factor [of] having that raw inventory in house.”

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Getting the Mosaic Design Right

Once the image is selected, Artaic uses its CAD software to manipulate the image into a pixelated format, which allows it to be translated into a mosaic. During this process, the image is sent back to the customer in several stages to give them an opportunity to make changes.

“We’ll iterate in the design software three or four times with the designer,” says Goodwin. “Then when they like one of the directions we’re moving in -- based on a certain tile type and color -- we will sample the project and they’ll approve it.” Artaic then orders the specified tile from its suppliers and begins production.

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ERP Tracks the Tiles

When the design is finalized, the information is put into Artaic’s ERP system, which fills the order with the appropriate tiles. The ERP system keeps track of which tiles go on each individual square of the mosaic, and how many are currently in stock. If necessary, Artaic can retrace its steps and reproduce specific squares.

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How Artaic Ensures Quality

Individual tiles are dumped into a catcher that feeds them into a mini conveyor belt. A quality assurance worker checks each tile as it goes down the belt to look for any chips or imperfections. The tiles are fed into clear plastic tubes and laid along the wall to wait for the next step in the process.

“From the front-end design, to the backbone ERP system and the back-end production system, we're eliminating a lot of human error and inaccuracies across the lifecycle of the project,” Goodwin says.

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Arty Goes Into Action

Next, the clear plastic tubes are fed into to Artaic’s robot, named Arty. Arty’s robotic arm picks tiles from each row and places them into the correct pattern according to the mosaic. Once the square is completed, a clear backing is placed on top, sealing in all the tiles. That’s the finished product and the final step is to ship all the squares to the customer for installation.

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Hitting the Curve

The company mostly makes designs that consist of straight rows of tiles, but recently it 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.

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Price Parity With ‘Made in China’

Acworth is working on a next-generation robot that will work 10 or 20 times faster than a human, which he hopes will disrupt the mosaic manufacturing market. He wants to be more competitive with markets like China that are 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 work for our clients. That would be kind of an amazing tipping point for us.”

Read CIO.com's article on Artaic and watch our video on how Arty, the robot, speeds up the mosaic manufacturing process.