Art and the future of modern manufacturing

Laser Cutting Technologies’ Jane Robinson explains why an open dialogue with the art world is so important for the future of modern manufacturing.

Jane Robinson, co-founder, Cutting Technologies.
Jane Robinson, co-founder, Cutting Technologies.

Laser cutting 40 tonnes of Corten steel might not sound like the most glamorous of contracts, or indeed anything worth commenting on for a laser firm like ours.

But unlike the majority of steel that finds its way onto our lasers, this particular example of laser cut metal is now commanding the attention of the London art world’s glitterati.

Earlier this year we were commissioned to help world renowned artist Conrad Shawcross RA create one of his most ambitious projects yet – a site-specific installation for the Royal Academy of Arts Courtyard for the Summer Exhibition 2015.

The Cutting Technologies team has worked with Conrad many times in the past but this latest work by the youngest living Royal Academician was our most ambitious and challenging project.

We laser cut 8,000 tetrahedrons which were then welded by Ken Ware Engineers to form ‘The Dappled Light of the Sun 2015’ – a captivating combination of artistic brilliance and engineering skill taking centre stage in the Annenburg Courtyard.

Since 1769, The Summer Exhibition has provided a unique platform for both emerging and established artists and architects to showcase their work on an international scale.

When manufacturing and art unite successfully, an artist’s vision can be brought to life in stunning ways.
When manufacturing and art unite successfully, an artist’s vision can be brought to life in stunning ways.

It is the world’s oldest open-submission exhibition and early exhibitors included the likes of Reynolds, Constable and Turner. For a manufacturing company to have played a part in such a prestigious exhibition is proof that art and engineering can work hand in hand beautifully.

But finding the perfect marriage between engineer and artist isn’t simple, and I believe both artists and manufacturers often miss out on great opportunities by struggling to speak each other’s language.

The UK is a leading global manufacturer with a world class reputation. Search any news website and everyone from the EEF to trade unions will champion our fantastic reputation in aerospace, shipbuilding, science, textiles and the pharmaceutical sectors.

Yet rarely do we hear about the arts and the huge role manufacturing plays in our creative industries sector.

Is it any surprise then that many manufacturers and engineers feel like aliens in another world when faced with artists’ complex briefs and big creative challenges?

The important role that manufacturing plays in the creative industries isn’t widely publicised.
The important role that manufacturing plays in the creative industries isn’t widely publicised.

Or that creatives might assume that engineers are there for the nitty gritty of a job, but not likely to add much to the wider artistic process?

When the two worlds collide effectively, manufacturing brings design to life by interpreting the artist’s concept into a thing of wonder, creating breathtaking sculptures and architecture in some of the most renowned locations.

After spending our early years focused on traditional engineering work, we decided to share our laser cutting and engraving expertise with architecture and design professionals – and spark their creativity in the process.

It hasn’t always been easy and we’ve learned lots along the way but the benefits far outweigh the challenges.

We have had to develop a different mindset when dealing with artists. We have to guide them on how the design will translate from paper to a finished piece.

We answer technical questions and give them advice and suggestions to think about but ultimately the decision (and the liability) rests with the designer. It’s up to them to make sure the piece fits together and is structurally sound.

On Conrad’s latest project, we collaborated with Structure Workshop, the London-based structural design engineers, to ensure Conrad’s vision worked on a practical level as well as aesthetically.

A competitor in the WorldSkills London 2011 welding category
Teaming up with other specialists is a great way of guaranteeing the success of an artistic project.

Teaming up with other specialists is a great way of guaranteeing the success of an artistic project.

Artistic work can stretch us in more ways than engineering work can. One of the many bonuses of this is developing new techniques through artistic work that cross over to our core engineering work, which still takes up the majority of our laser time.

It doesn’t have to be an either/or. Taking on artistic work and engineering jobs can help us become more proficient in both areas.

Our new Fiber lasers cut copper and bronze easily – perfect for our artistic customers following latest design trends for copper. They also boosted our engineering work by opening up new markets in healthcare, with the use of antimicrobial copper becoming more commonplace.

We developed our skills and heavily invested in new machinery to allow us to cut and engrave a vast and diverse range of materials so artists don’t have to compromise.

We’ve helped to create latex suits for Paris Couture Week, steel panels for the Ambassadorial Residence in Israel, Corten sculptures for Antony Gormley and engraved oak panels at Manchester University.

Cutting Technologie's ‘Cutting Creativity Loose’ campaign aims to shows designers and artists what’s possible with modern laser technology.
Cutting Technologie’s ‘Cutting Creativity Loose’ campaign aims to shows designers and artists what’s possible with modern laser technology.

Our ‘Cutting Creativity Loose’ campaign opens dialogue and shows designers and artists what’s possible with modern laser technology.

We work with such a wide range of materials in so many ways that we’ve started offering sample packs to artists so they can get a better idea of how their designs could translate. It makes communication between artist and engineer much simpler.

The art world is unknown territory for many manufacturers but it’s also an adventure. It’s a new challenge but one which our industry should embrace if we want to continue to prosper and progress.

Working with artists is exciting, creative and fulfilling. They have a spark and imagination which can be lacking in the day to day business world.

Yes, we still need and value our engineering contracts but there’s nothing like the pride of seeing your work exhibited in a landmark venue for future generations to admire.