Carrara, the Italian city famous for some of the world’s finest marbles, has given birth to the masterpieces of Renaissance masters, such as Michelangelo and Antonio Canova. Now in the heart of the city’s quarry district, a startup aims to usher in a new era of sculpture in which robots pick up – or rather become – the chisel.
Founded by Filippo Tincolini and Giacomo Massari, Robotors mission is to revolutionize the industry by simplifying sculpting with the help of robotics and artificial intelligence. The aim is to make sculpture faster, easier and more sustainable, while enabling artists to create works that would otherwise be unthinkable.
Based on research and the interaction between art, the environment, tradition and technology, the startup has developed a robot chisel, powered by self-programming software.
It all started in 2004 when Tincolini was founded Torart, a company specialized in fusing sculpture, contemporary art and design with the application of new technologies. Two years later Torart developed the first robot and in 2010 Giacomo Massari also joined the team.
As a result of increasing assignments, the collaboration with world-famous artists such as Barry X Balland the creation of the replica of the Arch of Palmyra – after that the original was destroyed by ISIS in 2015, – the duo founded Robotor in 2019. The company’s size and funding remain undisclosed.
“Our robots were born from sculptors for sculpture,” co-founder Giacomo Massari tells TNW. “They are born of those who know perfectly traditional sculpture in a territory, Carrara, the homeland of sculpture.”
The idea behind their development is “to entrust a robot with exhausting work,” adds Massari. “But the whole Robotor project is born of a precise philosophy that is the ‘daughter’ of 18 years of experience in stone processing.”
Putting the robot sculptors to work
The robot system consists of a mechanical arm using electrospindles of various sizes and capacities, and is equipped with an automatic tool change function.
The arm is mounted on a multifunctional, modular base, which contains the necessary electrical and hydraulic components. It is also accompanied by a turntable with a seventh axis, where the marble and future sculptures are located. The table rotates in full interpolation with the movements of the robot, makes optimal use of its flexibility and can support a workload of up to 50 tons.
At the core of Robotor’s system is the company’s proprietary software called OR-OS – designed for programming by expert operators or for fully automated self-programming.
The software takes a 3D model and automatically generates optimized workflow and tool paths without human intervention. The process is then simulated internally to identify potential problems before instructions are sent to the robot bit.
Based on the selected work path, the OR-OS software asks the robot to choose which types of products and tools it will use for the different stages of the production process: from sculpting to polishing and cleaning.
The robot then analyzes the stone or material it will be working on and assesses its shape and properties to determine where and how it can be cut before proceeding to production.
In addition to the robot’s ability to operate completely autonomously, users can also choose to program it and choose the work path it will follow. They can also control various machine functions in real time, including speed adjustment, and monitor the status of the robot and its components, easily receiving alerts in case of any anomalies.
From the human to the robot hand: speed, accuracy and innovation
Robotor’s mechanical sculptors have a series of intriguing advantages.
First, the robots are designed to eliminate all tiring stages of the manufacturing process, operate in extreme environments that would otherwise endanger humans, and avoid human error.
“Using the right tools in combination with work path optimization enables uninterrupted machine use 24/7, responding to the need for precise control over working hours and costs,” says Massari. According to the co-founder, this translates into a significant reduction in execution times and costs.
While cost savings are hard to quantify, Massari notes that, on average, an artwork can be created by the robots in one-tenth the time required by traditional techniques, not counting manual finishing.
Despite this fast pace, Robotor’s sculptors have impressive accuracy.
To demonstrate this, Massari mentions the reproduction of The Muse Terpsichore, a famous sculpture completed by Canova in 1811, which was on display at the exhibition “A tempo di danza” at the Archaeological Municipal Museum of Vetulonia. The museum chose to display the replica without any hand finishing to avoid confusion between the copy and the original.
Notably, Massari believes the robot chisels could push the boundaries of sculpture, enabling artists to create works that would have been “unthinkable” before the robots’ facilitation.
“Artists who collaborate with us, such as Quayola and Barry X Ball, present themselves to the public with never-before-seen sculptures designed to be realized using a robotic system and exploiting its idiosyncrasies,” he says.
“Any work of art is primarily defined by the materials available to the artist and his ability to manipulate them.”
The robots’ diamond-tipped tools that extract material without breaking or splitting it also open up new possibilities for material use, including conglomerates of rocks and earth that cannot be processed by traditional methods.
According to Massari, this also has to do with sustainability, which is accentuated by the software’s 3D model simulation and work path optimization. In this way, the marble block can be excavated with precise knowledge of the dimensions of the final artwork, without any waste.
While they are suitable for any stone product, says Massari, the robots mainly target three market groups: traditional sculpture workshops looking to introduce robotics into their production line, artists who want to manage all creative phases themselves, and designers who produce their own pieces directly. And thanks to their self-programming software, Robotor’s machines are accessible to everyone.
In addition to facilitating the creation of new works of art, Robotor derives its greatest satisfaction from the preservation and communication of cultural heritage through the reproduction of great works of the past.
One such example is the Arch of Palmyra, which was reproduced at a scale of 1:3, based on photographs taken during a documentation campaign of the archaeological site.
The replica was made in five weeks using 20 tons of Egyptian marble, technologically “reviving” the 2,000-year-old monument destroyed by ISIS. In 2016 it was exhibited at Trafalgar Square in London and at City Hall Park in New York.
Another example is Amore e Psyche, one of Canova’s most famous sculptures, completed in 1793 after five years of work and displayed in the Louvre.
In 2020, the Robotor replica was manufactured in just over 10 days and was on display at Rome’s “Eterna belezza” exhibition, along with 170 other works of art from museums around the world.
In 2022, the startup will make a total of about 400 sculptures. Massari has not disclosed the price of the machines or the cost of commissioning a sculpture.
Human vs robot: who is the real creator?
Robotor’s mechanical sculptors are fast, accurate and efficient, rivaling even the work of Renaissance masters. This begs the question: Is there enough room for human agency?
Massari’s answer is short and concise: the robot will never replace the artist. “It is not a creative person, but a mere performer,” he emphasizes.
For the co-founder, the robot chisels essentially replace the laborious and time-consuming work that artists would normally entrust to specialized laboratories to carry out their vision.
“It is rare that the artists carry out all the phases themselves,” explains Massari, noting that they can intervene directly in the finishing phase or by giving precise instructions.
“This was how Michelangelo went about it, and it’s how artists work today,” he adds.
In fact, he explains that the creative process hasn’t changed at all. Sculptors used clay or plaster sketches for centuries before turning to marble work. Today there is one more step: a 3D model that is created from the sketch, which is essential for the software that controls the robot.
And by replacing the traditional strenuous and time-consuming production process, Robotor wants to actually increase the creative possibilities of artists.
“The history of art is a continuous history of innovations,” says Massari. “Artists have always relied on technological knowledge and ingenuity to find the materials and tools they need to express their dreams, thoughts, visions or beliefs. And innovation has always influenced the way art is made.”
The startup’s ultimate goal is to usher in a new era of sculpture, in which the expression of human artists is supported and expanded through the use of robotics and AI. As the co-founders put it, “this era is no longer broken bricks, chisels, and dust, but scanning, point clouds, and design.”