Can-do tiny robot art

YP cadet Phoebe Chan

Miniature designs of recycled aluminium aim to promote conservation

YP cadet Phoebe Chan |

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Hong Kong artist Orson Li with some of his miniature creations which are made from folded recycled aluminium cans.
Next time you throw an empty drinks can in the bin, just remember that it may not be the last time you see it. For it could well return - as a robot.

Hong Kong artist Orson Li uses recycled aluminium cans for his intricate miniature "Canbot" designs. They are very popular, and sell for between US$650 and US$2,500. Each handcrafted piece contains nothing but parts from the original discarded can - "no screw, no glue, no welding and no colouring", Li says.

He was inspired to create the robots from old drinks cans through his interest in origami, the Japanese art form of paper folding.

Li coined the term "ori-alu" (a combination of origami and aluminium) to describe the craft of bending and folding aluminium.

He makes each artwork by manipulating, cutting, and bending sheets of recycled aluminium into three-dimensional structures. Li says: "The process is kind of eco-friendly since no extra materials, such as glue or paint, are involved."

But the work can be time consuming. It can take between one week and a month to produce a single Canbot. "You have only one chance to bend the sheet of aluminium," he says.

It took three years of hard work for Li to be sufficiently skilled to create a Canbot using only his hands and some common household tools. Increased demand for his products and the precision needed to create them means that Li can make only a limited number. At times his hands are so sore that he is unable to hold even a pair of chopsticks.

Li was born and raised in Hong Kong for much of his childhood, before moving to the US. Now back in Hong Kong, he is passionate about recycling and conservation.

As he says on his website,, the purpose of his miniature art forms is to encourage people to "save the planet together". The "Can" in "Canbot" refers not only to Li's use of aluminium drinks cans in his creations, but also how humans can make changes.

Through three of his core figures - Canrex (representing the past), the Panda (representing the present), and the Canbot (representing the future) - Li hopes to encourage people to treasure what they have. His Canbot logo has adopted the image of the Earth and a "y-shaped" Canbot hand joined together to signify saving the world.

By recycling, reusing and taking care of the Earth's limited resources, we can ensure the survival of our culture and future, he says.

Li is determined that his Canbots are seen as more than mere toys or decoration. He defends the high price of his creations and says emphasis must be placed on the "design, craftsmanship and message" - rather than the material cost.

He is not content merely to bring Canbots into our lives. His online shop offers Canbot merchandise, such as tote bags, and he is also developing a comic series involving the Canbots, which emphasises recycling, and can be viewed on the web.

Li says the way to save the planet is all about making the right choice. "Treasure or trash?" Li asks. "It's your choice."

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