Disney Is Teaching Robots How to Sculpt With Clay

Robots might have already taken over industries like manufacturing, but when it comes to more creative endeavors, like the arts, humans still hold a strong lead. But for how long? Disney’s researchers have created a system that allows human artists to teach aspiring robotic Michelangelos how to sculpt clay using tools to mimic various artistic styles.


Most humans dabble with sculpting when they’re kids, but using your hands to knead Play-Doh and modeling clay into snakes and ash trays is a far cry from the processes professional sculptors use to craft their creations. There are lots of special tools that come into play, and every sculptor develops their own unique style that comes in part from how they use those tools. However, using tools is one place where robots excel, so researchers from Disney Research and ETH Zürich in Zürich, Switzerland, designed and built a robotic sculptor called RobotSculptor (makes sense!) that can turn a lump of clay into a potential masterpiece, with some hand-holding from an artist.

On its own, RobotSculptor lacks any kind of creativity, at least in its current form. Instead, it uses a six-axis robotic arm with a custom sculpting tool on the end that’s controlled by a software system that allows an artist to first upload a 3D model the robot will eventually recreate in clay, and then define the overall look of the final sculpture and how the robot should go about creating it in terms of the motions of the tool and the carving techniques it will use. The software then processes the 3D model and the artists’ defined parameters to come up with a series of sculpting motions that will accurately reproduce the model in the desired sculpting style.

Besides putting sculptors out of work and making starving artists even hungrier, there are some potential practical applications of this research. Rapid prototyping is slowly being taken over by 3D printing and similar technologies, but many companies will still start with a clay sculpture of a given object to get an idea of how something will look in real life. A robot could automate the process and more accurately turn a 3D model on a computer screen into a real-world representation made of clay. RobotSculptor could even be used to create copies of famous sculptures, or even new works in the style of famous sculptors like Donatello or Rodin--provided a human artist is talented enough with 3D modeling software. 



A robot could already turn a 3D model into a physical representation via 3D printing or CNC carving, so I’m not sure if clay sculpting is really an improvement on that (there are even sculptable materials that can be used in both processes if humans want to be able to manually adjust things later). That said, I could see two benefits of this process: the first is that using directional mapping and the like could potentially be faster and more efficient than the CNC method which, in any version, essentially comes down to moving a tool (either a cutting tool or an additive tool) back and forth over and over to cover the entire intended surface. The second advantage is the ability to have more refined control over the surface, giving it a more natural sculpted look without having to worry about hiding machining lines because the lines would mimic human strokes better. Could be a neat way to create artistic surfaces such as architectural materials that feel organic and don’t repeat, which is a common issue with the usual approach of molding such surfaces from a master.