High School Co-op
In 2000/2001, I did high-school co-op working with a mechanical engineer in a medical devices company. I already knew how to model with Pro/Engineer from a previous summer job, so I was able to learn SolidWorks quickly. I had to design semi -automated equipment to be used in their R&D lab.
The company manufactured blood analysis cartridges. We had to build hundreds of thousands of these cartridges for testing in R&D before they could go into production. Because I was free labour as a student (it was an unpaid position), they gave me responsibility to lead my own design projects. I was tasked with developing semi-automated equipment they wished they had in the lab but never had time to build. During my time there, I designed and built:
- a tape cutter
- a Teflon press
- a Teflon punch
- a latex placement system (when I returned for a university co-op term)
Learning to do engineering designs
As a high-school student I had no engineering knowledge – I was only applying to schools! So I was learning about manufacturing as I designed. I often referring to the Machinery Handbook or looking for inspiration in the McMaster-Carr big yellow book. I was eager to learn, so I started taking evening machining and metal-working courses at the local college. Here I learned to understand manufacturing details like tolerances, clearance and threaded holes. I made mistakes often but I found learning through a project a fantastic way to gain knowledge fast – as there was an end goal. Perhaps not unlike learning to program with Python by programming a robotic arm to paint!
Semi-Autonomous vs. Fully-Autonomous
Semi-automated equipment still requires human intervention, if it could work on its own it would be fully-autonomous. In my current robot work, my robot semi-autonomous. Although the robot physically moves the brush on the page, I still have to swap brushes, change paper, clean the water and mix the colors.
Fully automated equipment means I could leave the studio for the day and the robot would continue painting without any human intervention. I think this confuses people when they watch my robot paint, they assume it is autonomous (if not conscious and creative on its own!). Often referring to it with pronouns “HE”. But this is FAR from the case.
At the company, they had a production floor which did have an almost fully-automated production line to make cartridges. It required minimal operator intervention. I loved walking in the hallways lined with windows looking into the assembly line to watch the machines moving and assembling parts as if by magic.
Before cartridges were ready for production they started with the research team. So I helped manually build cartridges with the R&D team. So I really appreciate production machines doing the repetitive assembly work, so the team can focus on the more exciting creative research and development work. However, spending a day in R&D with unbelievably smart PhD’s doing monotonous work like assembling cartridges was SO much fun. The banter, blaring tunes and camaraderie were my highlight of working there. I later learned that most companies aren’t actually this much fun and the importance of company culture.
Automation in my early career
Learning, early on, how to develop equipment to do tasks became second nature and a fun challenge. My career was started with the idea that technology is developed to make tasks easier so people can focus on more thoughtful work. I love the problem solving in this process. I have to think about what basic motions are required to do a task (often steps we don’t even realize!). And after you figure it out, and have a design working, it feels magic. Of my six co-op positions while at University of Waterloo, I spent 4 of them at other automation companies.
Artist vs. tool
So the unexpected outcome of figuring out how to involve automation into my art practice is that people think I have handed off my creativity to a machine. But all I have done is programmed a robot to move about a page and apply paint and I give it inputs. Making this happen requires inputs and a lot of work to make any valuable/interesting art. I find myself thinking about why people incorrectly assume that I am handing off my creativity to a machine? Often incorrectly describing the robot as the artist instead of the human artists tool.
My excitement for automation
Later in my engineering undergrad, I took a Science in Society course. We read Marshal McLuhan and other social studies titles. The overall vibe of the course was against technology and automation. I remember struggling in the course. I found it challenging to understand the concerns while I was starting my career with sheer enthusiasm of automation. In contrast to that course, I was seeing so many opportunities for technology – especially on the engineering student job board at University of Waterloo. But this is a topic for many other posts and discussions.
Fast forward 20 years later, as I have been experimenting with adding automation to my art practice through robotics and AI. It has been an exciting year as I have installed my robot to paint in a few gallery settings I have to say one of my favorite things is to see the the public watch the robot paint. Although, I find it tough to not want to tell them all the details about what is happening… I’ve learned to let people watch in silence so they can appreciate the details of the motions. Hopefully watching with the same joy and amazement I had 20 years ago when I watched automated equipment assembling medical cartridges. Moving as if by magic.