Magnetic drawbot, TODO, 2015

Posted in Artworks and Exhibition

Magnetic Drawbot is a machine that procedurally generates drawings composed by means of algorithmic instructions and performed mechanically. The machine uses a ferrofluid ink and a cursor (nib) that is a magnet driven by a microcontroller connected to a system of motors and linear drivers. Ferrofluid, which looks very similar to thick black ink, is composed of ferromagnetic nanoparticles that in the presence of a magnetic field become polarised and arrange themselves into regular patterns. Thanks to this feature, one can model, move and guide the ink by using one or more magnetic fields. Magnetic Drawbot is a re-programmable machine rather than a “programmed” one: it generates a natural/mechanic drawing based on algorithms that do not deterministically control their output. Starting from little drops that slowly move over the surface of a sheet driven by the magnet, the ferrofluid ink leaves rough, uncertain, inaccurate, irregular tracks, giving rise to an ambiguous transition between the precision of the code and the tangible warmth of the result. Conceived as a “simple machine”, cheap and easy to build and replicate, modifiable and customizable, light and transportable, easy to reprogram.
Magnetic Drawbot can be used for educational purposes: it is ideal for teaching how to build other machines that can draw “patterns that change over time”.

Research context and references
The project Magnetic Drawbot stems from the principles of the work by Davide Boriani, who in the series Superfici magnetiche presents machines that perform a single program, generating changing, developing images. We began by analysing the technique used by Boriani, which employed moving magnets, before developing a reconfigurable “magnetic drawing” machine which can be used to create and test endless potential “software structures”. Magnetic Drawbot is the result of a research project with a playful element: ferrofluid unexpectedly turned out to be an unpredictable sort of ink, which when animated and magnetised by hand, created very distinctive graphic effects. When the machine is on, the creative process is just as fascinating as the drawing itself, which is generated almost magically from the tiny drops of moving ferrofluid. Playing with the ferrofluid/ink gave us the idea of creating a “system for drawing” to explore the specific potential and limits of a “printing” machine that was deliberately far removed from the accuracy, repeatability and precision of commercial products, with its specific own formal language and expressive capacities.

Technology and media
Magnetic Drawbot is a plotter that moves a “cursor” on a Cartesian plane. The x-y motion system is operated by a pair of stepper motors connected to an Arduino microcontroller that actuates them through a control driver. The main feature of the plotter is its use of an H-bot motion system with a single transmission belt: this means the motors can be positioned without having to move them on the axes. The magnet, which acts as a cursor, is hosted in the mobile head of the plotter. The cursor is moved towards and away from the plane by a third motor. Magnetic Drawbot is controlled by an Arduino board that interprets a sequence of g-code instructions (the standard language for describing the operations of cnc machines), generated by software sketches written in the open source programming environment Processing.

The structure and mechanics of the H-bot machine were co-designed with Gianluca Pugliese.

Bill of materials
Arduino Uno board
Stepper motor control board (custom PCB,
Pololu stepper drivers)
Stepper motors (Nema 17)
M3 and M4 screws and nuts
Linear bearings (8 mm)
Steel rods (8 mm)
Timing belts (gt2)
Pulleys (gt2)
Liquid ferrofluid
Transparent acetate sheets
3 mm Plexiglas sheets
Plexiglas glue
hpl laminate sheets
Power supply
usb cable

All contents are released under the license cc by-nc-sa 4.0.