Kuka the Sculptor

Is that a robot sculpting in the arts fabrication lab at UC San Diego’s new Structural and Materials Engineering Building? The Kuka Systems robotic mill resembles a gigantic arm with an “elbow” and “wrist” that moves to position various cutting tools. UCSD’s Visual Arts Department acquired the robot to help artists bring to life creations that, until now, have existed only in their imaginations. The machine, which is one of only a handful in the United States being used primarily by artists, carves complex forms from composite materials, foams, plastics, fiberglass, hard and soft woods, aluminum, brass and bronze.

Last fall, Visual Arts faculty visited the Kuka plant in Saginaw, Mich. for training. They also received software training at UCSD from a representative of New Berlin, Wis.-based Robotic Solutions, Inc., which adapted Kuka’s robotic mill for artistic purposes.

“We’ll be collaborating with the engineers who might have additional ideas about the eventual function and purpose of our work,” says Rubén Ortiz-Torres, who is milling diptychs—pairs of panels, hinged together, milled with various surface shapes, coated with chromalusion paints that change color as light strikes at different angles.

Torres’ diptychs and other projects dreamed up by faculty and graduate student artists in collaboration with engineers will lead to new forms, materials and manufacturing processes with applications in a variety of industries.

Dirk Sutro