Ted Acworth is inching closer to his goal of making the ancient art form of mosaics accessible to most 21st century homeowners.
Acworth, a mechanical engineer and world traveler, started the Boston-based company Artaic a decade ago after he looked into decorating his home with custom tile mosaics, but discovered it would be too expensive and complicated. To try and solve that problem, his company developed a custom mosaic design and manufacturing service that uses robots and software to make the process more efficient and less costly.
Acworth, Artaic’s CEO, has methodically built what he says is a profitable company by selling primarily to hotels, restaurants, airports, universities, and other businesses and organizations that have the budgets for art installations. Artaic’s products have been installed in homes, but they tend to be large, expensive projects, and they make up a small portion of the company’s overall sales, Acworth says.
Now, with the help of a recent $2.1 million venture funding round from China-based Lesso and InTeahouse, Artaic intends to market its mosaics more aggressively to consumers interested in adding unique and ornate decor to, say, their kitchen, bathroom, or the bottom of their pool.
“The vision for Artaic is to take this beautiful art form … and make it much more accessible to more people,” Acworth says in an interview at Artaic’s new headquarters in the Boston Design Center in the city’s Seaport neighborhood. (See photo slideshow above.)
The key to that vision is bringing costs down. When Xconomy profiled Artaic nine years ago, Acworth said the company’s system could churn out mosaics at a cost of about $150 per square foot—around $100 cheaper than the cost of a typical hand-assembled mosaic at the time, but still out of reach for the average person’s budget.
Since then, advances in Artaic’s technology and processes have enabled it to deliver mosaics for as low as $20 per square foot, with the “sweet spot” being between $40 and $70 per square foot, Acworth says. His goal is to bring that price below $10 per square foot, and he says he thinks Artaic can achieve that within two or three years. Getting there will require more investment in Artaic’s production technologies, Acworth says.
Artaic’s computer-aided design software can translate virtually any image—such as a photograph, a hand-drawn sketch, or a magazine cut-out—into specifications for the placement of tiny colored pieces of glass, stone, ceramic, or other materials. A high-speed robotic arm handles the manual labor of picking and placing tiles at a rate of nearly two tiles per second. Humans oversee the process and make sure the product turns out right. Tiles are delivered to customers in one-square-foot sheets that get assembled into the full mosaic on site.
Artaic’s mosaics are manufactured at its Boston headquarters and at a partner facility in Texas, Acworth says. Most tile mosaics these days are made by hand in China and India, he says. This sets up an interesting, and seemingly counterintuitive, dynamic: Artaic’s efforts to automate this process have actually created manufacturing jobs for U.S. workers.
“There’s no way to have a mosaic industry in the United States without automation,” Acworth says. “You would never be able to compete on labor costs.”
He admits that the more Artaic automates the mosaic design and assembly process, the more it reduces the need for any human workers at all. But that hasn’t been an issue so far. Artaic has doubled revenues over the past two years, and it has grown to about 30 full-time employees, he says. That’s not a ton of jobs, but they pay well and come with benefits like health insurance and job training, he adds. (Artaic also has more than 30 contract workers in areas like sales and research and development, he says.)
“These aren’t crummy sweat shop jobs,” Acworth says. “We’re a craftsman workshop. While we’re highly automated, it’s still a human process.”
Artaic is currently working on the fifth version of its robot, which “dramatically lowers” the required manual labor, Acworth says. The new version will simplify the process of loading tiles into the machine. Workers will be able to pour tiles in bulk, directly into the side of the robot—like filling a car tank with gasoline, he says.
Artaic’s robots grab a lot of the attention, but Acworth says the work his company has done on automating the design process is “just as important, if not more important” than making the production process more efficient. For example, tallying up inventory and producing quotes for customers used to be a slower, manual process. Now, as soon as Artaic’s software creates a rendering of the planned mosaic, it immediately calculates the price and estimated delivery time, Acworth says.
“It makes it so much easier for me to give you many options,” he says.
Artaic has tried different experiments with selling custom mosaics directly to consumers. In 2010, for example, it formed a partnership with Home Depot to offer an online service where users could upload images and have them turned into mosaics.
“It didn’t work,” Acworth says. “It was still too expensive for that market, and too much customization for the customer to do. Your average Home Depot shopper is going to have a hard time designing a mosaic that is going to be beautiful enough for them to spend money on.”
Artaic’s latest push into the residential market will instead involve a “hands-on, high-touch” collaboration between potential customers and the company’s design consultants, Acworth says.
“It’s tricky to have it be an e-commerce, self-serve product,” he says. “I think we have a long road to get to there.”
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