The Power of Pixie

Kern Studios’ new robot is set to lead the parade and props powerhouse into the future.

The name “Kern” automatically evokes images of Mardi Gras and elaborate props and parade float designs— both in New Orleans and around the globe. Between Blaine Kern Artists, which helms the parade float-building aspect of the business, and Mardi Gras World, which handles tours, parties and events, the Kern empire is grounded firmly in New Orleans culture and Mardi Gras tradition.

But there’s another leg on which the Kern empire stands that doesn’t receive nearly the same amount of attention: Kern Studios, the commercial arm of the parent company by the same name. Since the 1980s, commercial clients have been a growing part of the Kern business under the leadership of the third generation of the Kern family: Barry Kern, president and CEO of Kern Studios and Mardi Gras World. Both companies operate out of the same, 250,000-square-foot Kern Studios building. Although commercial business currently makes up about 20 percent of the studio’s workload — with the other 80 percent Carnival work — due to its profitability, it accounts for a significant percent of the company’s revenue.

That number is expected to grow substantially thanks to an exciting new addition. Already a fixture on tours at Mardi Gras World is a new production machine — a giant robot that’s been affectionately named “Pixie” after a former employee who enjoyed a 47-year tenure at Kern Studios. The only robot of its kind in the South, Kern Studios aims to use Pixie to expand production, drive revenue and ensure the future of the Kern empire for generations in the future.

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The Robotic Advantage

Officially known as the digital fabrication department, the Kuka brand CNC (computer numerical control) machine, a.k.a. Pixie, arrived on Bacchus Sunday this year. Just like a young couple welcoming a child, however, preparations were well in place for the new addition before the arrival. Pixie actually has its own room located in the heart of Mardi Gras World that measures 100 feet long, 30 feet wide and 15 feet high.   

“We started construction on the robot room two weeks before Mardi Gras and had the robot installed on Mardi Gras day,” says Corine Regelink, marketing manager of Kern Studios. “It was both ludicrous and genius: Despite Mardi Gras being our busiest time of the year, in the studio it is also the quietest since all the floats we’ve made are not in the studio but rolling on parade through the streets of New Orleans!”

Inside the room, Pixie is mounted on a 44-foot rail flanked with a 5-foot by 10-foot vacuum table and 16-foot radius rotary table.  

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It’s a setup similar to what Kern saw when the robot first caught his eye last summer during a visit to Shanghai Disney. There, the robot was working on a replica of the Black Pearl ship from “The Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Photos Jeff Johnston

“When I saw it, I could just see all the possibilities,” says Kern. While Pixie will predominantly carve out EPS Styrofoam at Kern Studios, the robot is capable of carving through polyurethane, stone, wood, clay, and even metal.

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To control its movements, floor manager Alex Sherrod learned how to use the robot’s Delcam software. The software generates toolpaths — the programming language that tells it how to create a particular prop to the desired scale based on a 3D model file. After setting up the toolpath within the software, Sherrod lays out the materials for the job and begins the project in manual mode.

Once things are moving smoothly, hecan switch Pixie to automatic mode and the robot will run overnight unattended. It uses drill bits of varying sizes to carry out roughing paths and then switches to finishing paths to work out the finer details of the design — with 0.01 mm accuracy — much like a hand sculptor would. When Sherrod returns the next day, his completed prop can be ready to send off to the next stage of production.

“It can do a tremendous amount of detail,” Sherrod says. “Or we can use it to carve out a good rough and then pass it along to a sculptor to finish by hand.”

Pixie can also more adeptly create “multiples,” or identical versions of the same prop or piece. Kern says this ability is invaluable when it comes to a commercial client like Chick-fil-A, for whom the studio creates all of the cow props used in various promotions.

“For corporate clients who want that brand continuity, it’s really going to be an advantage for us — what you see is what you get,” adds Sherrod. “We can send them a 3D model of whatever logo or prop or sculpture that they want, and once they send us that approval, there’s not going to be anything that gets lost in translation.”

When it comes to the size of a finished piece, Pixie’s capabilities are virtually unlimited. The toolpath program divides oversize project into sections that the robot carves, which then perfectly align with each other when later assembled. The company is currently working on a four-story cow for Chick-fil-A at one of its Westbank “dens,” or production warehouses. Kern Studios owns a total of 17 warehouses in the New Orleans area.

With the ability to autonomously create complete, identical and/or enormous models, speed up projects that other hand sculptors are working on, and work unattended overnight, the robot creates innumerable opportunities to increase production. That expansion is necessary as Kern Studios continues to grow its commercial business.

“I really believe that with this machine, we don’t even understand what it’s going to do for us,” says Kern. “…It’s going to lead to more business.”

Going Commercial

The Kern empire began to look beyond the New Orleans-based Carnival business with the entrance of the third generation of the Kern family, Barry. Kern says his father Blaine encouraged him to start a sculpting business, Kern Sculpture Company, in the ’80s, while Blaine continued to focus on Mardi Gras. That company eventually became Kern Studios.

During the early days of the branch into commercial sculpting, Kern landed contracts to produce sculptures that would go on to become iconic additions to the Las Vegas strip. Competition for these projects was fierce, but Kern said it helped to be a well-respected name.

Photos courtesy of Kern Studios

“The difference was, when I walked into a room, I was the guy that built Mardi Gras,” he says. “That’s a heck of a calling card. And even though we don’t technically build Mardi Gras, that’s how everybody introduces us.”

From there, the projects and clientele became increasingly prominent. In the late ’80s, Disney asked Kern’s company to stage a party for the opening of Splash Mountain at Disneyland in California. As a theme park ride with a southern theme, Disney’s organizers wanted Kern to use a Mardi Gras theme for the party. The end result, says Kern, was a raging success.

In the early ’90s, Disney reached out again to Kern to create signage for Euro Disney (now Disneyland Paris), including retail, restaurants and interior and exterior signage throughout the park. After successfully completing that project, Kern says Disney became a regular client. Soon after, Las Vegas’ Luxor Hotel and Casino tapped Kern’s expertise for the “Desert Disneyland” it was building with slot machines on the strip.

Kern Studios had arrived, and from then on became a sought-after producer of props and parade floats for companies and events worldwide.

Finding Balance

The key to success, Kern says, is knowing how to balance creativity and business. Additions like Pixie may seem counter to the creative process, but Sherrod and Kern agree that it will only serve to enhance creativity and bring in more capital and resources to allow that creativity to expand.

“All this commercial work, it’s great work to have,” says Kern. “It allows us to keep the very best people. If all we did was just Mardi Gras, it wouldn’t be the same company. I don’t think we’d be able to do as much as we do. It’s the fact that we do all this other work that allows us to do a better job for our customers here [in New Orleans] too.”

While Mardi Gras will always be the Kern empire’s bread and butter, the commercial clientele are the jelly, jam and honey — the enhancements that improve the other components of the business. Because corporate clients typically have larger budgets than local Mardi Gras krewes, it’s no surprise that the parades Kern Studios and Blaine Kern Artists create for other companies and cities are more profitable. That commercial revenue, however, then expands what Kern float builders can do for local Mardi Gras krewes.

Going forward, Kern says he hopes the new generation will focus on what will ensure the company’s future for another four generations to come.

“All the stuff we do is fun, but some of it frankly is more profitable than others,” says Kern. “And not that everything’s about profit, because it’s certainly not. Believe me, if I was in the business just to make money, the Mardi Gras business would not be the business to be in. But this business is a legacy business.”

All Fears Aside

With the additional revenue and profits driven by an increase in commercial work, Kern Studios hopes to be able to expand its workforce. This runs against the common assumption that a robot might actually cost employees their jobs.

“I never see the robot replacing any employee,” says Sherrod. “I’ve been sculpting by hand the last eight years at Kern, and now I’m operating the robot, so really it didn’t take my job, I’m just pivoting. [The robot] is just a new part of technology that’s going to change things, and there’s going to be some adaptation that goes into it, but the human element will always be a part of it.”

Photos Jeff Johnston and courtesy of Kern Sudios

The idea is that by using the robot to boost production, Kern Studios will need to create more jobs to handle the additional painting, assembly, and other production needs in addition to operating and maintaining the robot itself.

“It’s just incorporating a new tool,” says Sherrod. “It’s not going to be costing anybody any jobs. It’s going to allow us more flexibility, and it’s going to create new jobs we’ve never had in our company before.”

Going one step further, Sherrod says he’s working with universities to coordinate internship programs that will bring college students and graduates in to learn how to use this growing technology. These programs will “help develop the workforce of the future that companies like ours are going to need going forward,” he says.

The Kern family and enterprise will likely always be first associated with Mardi Gras and the tradition and creativity that goes along with it. But as the company continues to grow and expand commercial production through the use of its new robot, the Kern name is bound to bring the company another title, that of technological innovator in its industry.

“The real story for us is we’re a business that has been able to change,” says Kern. “Even though we’re a business that’s based on a culture and tradition, we’ve also managed to change and keep changing. And you have to keep changing to be successful.”

Creating Opportunities Across Industries

Kern Studios’ new robot will enable it to look beyond parade float and prop building to create new pieces that extend to a wide range of industries.

•  Marketing
The robot’s capabilities offer a wealth of opportunities for marketing and promotional materials that suit “any business that wants to increase their brand presence and really get noticed,” says Sherrod. This could include businesses coming to New Orleans for conventions that want a marketing element to help their booth get noticed.

•  Local Startups
If a local startup needs a prototype of an idea, “we can have that made for them in no time,” says Sherrod. All that’s needed is a 3D drawing file.

•  Manufacturing and Design
Architects, shipbuilders and engineers in the city can call in complicated parts that the robot can make using the 3D drawing file. “We can make it out of just about anything,” says Kern.

•  Sports
The first project created by the robot that will be most visible for New Orleanians is The Wave, a huge sculpture of Tulane University’s mascot. It will hover above the end zone of Yulman Stadium and gush water onto the student section when Tulane’s team makes a big play. As a Tulane alum, this project is close to Kern’s heart, but he also sees The Wave as the start of more opportunities for Kern Studios’ expansion into the sports business.

Meet Kern Studios’ Top Commercial Clients

•  Universal Studios Orlando
Each year, Universal works with Kern to create the park’s annual Mardi Gras-themed parade. Kern says that during Mardi Gras, Universal Studios Orlando sells more season passes than any time of year, alongside Halloween. This season, park attendance reached a record high on the day of the Mardi Gras parade and a coordinated Fall Out Boy performance.

•  Chick-fil-A (in conjunction with The Richards Group)
The “Eat Mor Chikin” campaign has become a goldmine for Kern Studios, which has been tasked with creating hundreds of cow sculptures.These sculptures have become part of everything from 3D billboard elements to the 40-foot-tall mechanical cow that is moving from Turner Field in Atlanta to SunTrust Park.

Bet You Didn’t Know It Was Kern’s

The Kern empire may be best known for Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but Kern Studios has left its mark on the world in terms of parades and props used across the globe. The following are just a few of the many places and events worldwide that bear the Kern Studios signature.

•  Chick-fil-A: Fleet of cow props and 3D billboard elements

•  Las Vegas strip: Harley Davidson motorcycle, Statue of Liberty,
    giant M&Ms, signage at MGM Casino

•  Universal Studios Orlando: Annual Mardi Gras parade

•  Universal Studios Japan: Annual Mardi  Gras/Halloween mashup parade

•  Times Square: M&M World signage

•  Signage at ESPN Club at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando

•  Thanksgiving Day Parade in Philadelphia

•  National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade in Washington, D.C.

•  Parade at Parque España in Shima, Japan

•  Parade at Samsung Everland Park in Seoul, South Korea



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