Last modified: Sunday, December 16, 2001 1:21 PM


Purloined inspirational photos from the 'Net


 Goodness Gracious, Great Balls 'o Fire! When I first saw Pooyan Toy's page (pic #3 sample), I coulda cried. This is right up there as some of the coolest Joe stuff I've ever seen on the 'Net!!! I've wanted to make a Joe hardsuit for a number of years since seeing an underwater one in a James Bond flick. Reference materials were limited and making something real-worldish, limited to the underwater environment didn't appeal much to me. The thought of doing an Exo-Squad/Aliens mechanized frame had crossed my mind too, but didn't push me over that threshold where desire overwhelmed the amount of work envisioned in undertaking such a project. Seeing the Pooyan Toys pics was different. I immediately started searching the 'Net for pics of the awesome SF3D/Machinen Krieger series and came across quite a few sites. Kow Yokoyama's site (creator of the series) guarantees an evening's worth of eyeball pleasing browsing. (I apologise to site owners whose illustrative pics I purloined without credit-- too much Google-launched browsing over a period of days without bookmarking...)

I never saw Nitto's original 80's SF3D kit series (most of it is 1/20th scale), but I heard of their 1/6th scale Maschinen Krieger vinyl kit reissue sometime last year. Unfortunately, I didn't act on that, and now-- even though this isn't that late after release -- it's virtually impossible to find anywhere. I have a backorder pending at Hobbylink Japan, but I suspect that it's never to be. It's a real bummer to have that kind of desire burning at you: Whining about it would be a natural reaction, but such self-indulgence really doesn't solve anything. A more productive outlet for this would be to motivate you to make your own. Overall, this would be a better solution anyway-- you could design it to your own specs, own the design (even if it were derivative), learn something, and take pride in having done your work the hard way. Though it may seem like an arrogant and sour grapes thing to say, building a canned kit is the easy way out and at most produces a customized built-up canned kit. "Uniqueness" is at the core of customizing (duh!), which is why scratch-building is at the apex of the modelmaking food chain. Which isn't to say that I wouldn't rather have the damn kit (hell, I'm as lazy as the next Joe and clicking an "order" button requires far less effort), but sometimes Reality will nudge you in the direction of these more noble paths. Ultimately though, it all depends on the big emm: Motivation. Convenience has a habit of sapping Motivation. (but shouldn't be considered Evil since it underlies the concept of fast food, canned beer and masturbation.)

At the outset of any project, I try to envision how I'm going to make it happen. Familiar territory requires very little preplanning other than a vague direction about where it will ultimately wind up. The basic techniques and materials are known, so the new features of a project are the only thing that demand exploratory thought. Even with such a limited scope, such things are not always quick or easy. In this case, the basics of the project are totally unfamiliar territory, requiring a completely different set of construction techniques. I'm a figure customizer, not a vehicle builder! ( my badge-of-shame Kubelwagon demonstrates.) In this case, there's not a base figure to modify, and for me, this is a big honker thingamajig to create out of nothing. Although I studied the images for general design principles, specific strategies for handling the articulation and detail can wait-- I have faith that solutions will present themselves at the appropriate time. At the outset, the biggest and most obvious hurdle is figuring out how I should make the hollow main body shell.

Several ideas come to mind: The main shell could be cast or constructed of primitive shapes/vacuformed pieces. Casting is out-- it would cost a bundle in silicone molding material, plus I hate casting. Compositing existing shapes would be cheaper, but would involve possible design-compromised puzzle work and obviously, much more finishing work.

In either case, producing the main body shape is the first hurdle, independent of the manner in which it's finally rendered. Although you can slap robot arms and legs on a shoebox, my goal is to produce something with the general appearance of the SAFS design-- lots of curves. As I discovered after a week of taking mental notes of everyday objects, such shapes are not easily found. Bummer. Even composites of primitive shapes that sort of fit the bill didn't give me the effect that I wanted. This pointed to a total sculptural approach-- if the shape doesn't exist, make it. Again, this poses the question of materials, techniques and cost. Certainly, one could sculpt such a shape in polymer clay... but it would be expensive. Or you could sculpt it in wood, which would take a lot of time and a lot of work. Or you could cut costs by sculpting a layer of clay over a low cost core-- if the core were rigid enough and compatible with the clay techniques. This hurdle had kept me from attempting larger-scale projects like this before: A reasonable solution could provide a technique for tackling similar problems in the future.

This seems like a good point to pause to let you ponder the problem and exercise your gray matter. Although I've developed a solution which shows promise, there's a real possibility that this project will ultimately fall down and prove to be an embarrassment like the Kubelwagon (aieeeeee!) project. That's the danger of these learn-as-you-go projects. Nevertheless, even in failure there's bound to be something of value to someone, somewhere... and my ego can endure those permanent bruises.



11/4/01-- Now that you've had some time to mull it over, here's what I did... Actually, my solution-of-choice evolved during the process. I'd more or less decided on the clay-over-core method, and chose a styrofoam ball to build over. From initial tests, I wasn't encouraged by the way the clay behaved over the core, and figured that a thick, wasteful layer of clay would have to be applied to seal in the foam particles. Baking the clay would pose another problem, since heat and styrofoam don't exactly play well together. Fortunately, the styrofoam proved to be a good sculpting medium for rough-shaping. It dawned on me that the central problem was sealing the styrofoam; a more flowable material should be used for this... like wood filler? Shazzam! It's cheaper than clay, flows nicely and provides an air-drying, hard, sandable surface. This opened up new possibilities. While I knew that the filler wouldn't be a durable final surface, it could be cleaned up and detailed with epoxy putty to provide a pattern for vacuforming. Another interesting possibility: A layer of epoxy putty over the wood filler might be strong enough to create a self-supporting shell. The styrofoam could be reamed/burned out. Whether this is do-able is questionable since epoxy putty, though strong, is brittle. It would be pretty heavy and probably expensive too.

This unimpressive pic shows the in-progress sanded body shell, a section of drainage pipe and an undeveloped idea for the hip section.

While styrofoam is easy to carve and the wood filler is easy to spread, achieving symmetry and spreading a smooth surface aren't easy. After several patching and sanding sessions, there are still a number of surface imperfections, subtle asymmetries, and the cross section at the base isn't perfectly circular. Even though wood filler is easy to sand, it's a long process that you have to do by hand in order to maintain the contours. I dry sanded so that I could better see the low points: It creates lotsa very fine dust that dries out your hands like chalk.

The hip design is a little ambiguous at this point. I've sculpted the part similar to the way a figure's leg articulation is constructed, although it will actually be a shell for the figure's legs to pass through. This isn't a big concern right now: The part will probably end up with panel coverings anyway and this will give me a section to test design ideas on.

I'm a little wary of how difficult it will be to make a hollow thigh section that's articulated with the body and somehow in alignment with the figure's hip articulation. Doing a simple pass-through "trouser" design would be the easiest solution. Part of the problem is that I'm not sure whether such a design would work in real life-- diver hardsuits don't have externally powered legs. In my opinion, the premise of a bipedal powered hardsuit is somewhat questionable, anyway. It looks neat, but wouldn't a plain robot or remotely piloted robot be more likely in our future? Why bipedal? Don't humans prefer to ride in vehicles with seats and shock absorbers? Awwwwww... shaddup, Jimbob!

11/10/01-- Wow, another unimpressive treat. This isn't really difficult and shouldn't have taken very long to do, but scrounging for parts doesn't make it any easier. Even though hollow cylinders are pretty common, finding them in a useable diameter, wall thickness & material wasn't easy.

There are several ways to do something like this... This, being the creation of the appearance of a human being inside a large, totally encasing armor suit. The easiest way is to create a stand-alone robot figure, with a cavity for as much of the figure as would be exposed for viewing from an open hatch. Closed hatch-- why bother? There's nothing wrong with this approach... in fact, it's a pretty logical way to go. I mean, no way the figure is ever going to actually operate the robot, and it's unlikely that the figure will be required to routinely enter and exit the suit (just buy a second figure for the out-of-suit look). For that matter, why create a highly detailed outfit and figure when the figure will probably stay inside the suit and never be seen?

I dunno. It's a reasonable point of view, but it's fun to attempt to recreate some of the mechanics & function of the fictional suit. Even to the point of making it hinged, instead of simply hiding and joining segments with a bellows-like material. That's in line with the concept of it being a stand-alone mechanically powered suit versus heavy armor powered by human muscle. Even though the hinges probably will end up being covered by bellows-- it's the thought that counts.

So conceptually, what we have here is an articulated exoskeleton with another exoskeleton occupying the interior. The problem is vastly simplified because I'm not going to do this with the arms: The wide body shell really precludes that anyway. Even though this simplifies the problem of the joint alignment, there's still a problem. The problem starts with the hips: For simplicity, I've chosen to combine the forward/backward and inward/outward sweep of the legs at the center, similar to the way most figures are constructed. However, the centers of the layered hinges should be aligned for things to work properly. For the forward/backward sweep of legs, the hinges should be on the outside of the legs, higher up and aligned with the figure's hinge axis. (Obviously, you can't do this from the center since that would require the hinge to be positioned somewhere in the middle of the figure's crotch... ouch!) This would entail the construction of a girdle-like support structure. Likewise, the inward/outward sweep hinges should be located at the figure's hinge axis. Unfortuately, by moving the forward/backward hinging to the outside, the suit's forward/backward hinge axis will change as the other hinge sweeps inward and outward, causing it to be out of alignment with the horizontal orientation of the figure's forward/backwards hinge... Whew! An elaborate design might solve these problems though... I just didn't have the conceptual brainpower for it. The simple design I went with seems to work, although inefficiently, similar to the way a pair of stiff and baggy trousers might.

A related problem is the alignment of the knee joint. In a tightly-fitted external armature, the fit would always align (if done correctly). However, in this design where the fit is loose to enable the figure's placement and removal, the alignment is rough and sloppy. Consequently, I designed the leg segments to be telescopic so that the hardsuit's knee joints could align with the figures. This also solved the problem of my not being sure which figure I was going to ultimately use: Legs of different lengths and proportions could be accommodated with adjustable length segments. It also gave the legs bunches of rotational articulation. I imagine that hiding these telescopic segments with coverings will be a big challenge.

Finally, I took the easy way out with the feet. I happened to have an unfinished robot kit; the shins and feet had several axes of articulation, so I'm experimenting with the big honker feet idea. I may be back at the design board if they look weird after the legs have their coverings.

11/11/01-- When doing stuff like this, it's helpful to analyze examples of those who have gone before. It seemed like such a simple thing that I only thought of doing that after-the-fact, when the problems became apparent. I've never seen the Nitto 1/6th scale robot in person, but I suspect that it's largely a static vinyl model that you can fit a Joe figure into. I know of only a few toys which have functional articulation-within-articulation:

An old Japanese Godaikin robot has three robots-within-robots, with the aligned f/b & i/o articulation at the shoulder joint. This was accomplished by having an "L"-shaped hinge, attached at the back (i/o) and on the outside (f/b). Because these are identical in all three robots, they nest within each other very neatly.

The Exosquad toys. These are small articulated robots (about 5.5" tall) that encase a reasonably well articulated figure of standard construction (f/b leg hinging in the center). As with my strategy, the legs are the only area where there needs to be a tight alignment-- the figures' arms exit the body frame to grasp control sticks attached to the robots' arms. Unfortunately-- possibly due to the cost & size of these figures, there wasn't much new to learn: Basically, they didn't solve the hinge alignment puzzle. Each robot is constructed slightly differently and the sweep range of hinges is minimal, but none seemed to have both the f/b & i/o sweep design that pointed to a solution to the hinge alignment problem.

Analyzing these figures pointed out another problem facing this type of figure-within-a-figure: How are you going to insert/remove the figure? In both of these figures, the leg segment covers are hinged so that the interior figure can be placed into the robot figure. For me, this would be a lot of extra work and aggravation, since it requires quite a bit of precision to do this well... and it would be especially hard to do and retain the telescopic segments (which add rotation to a segment). I'm hoping that the open construction of the telescoping design will permit some kind of "assemble-around-the-figure" means of dressing the operator figure.

Testing the LWES (Liquid Waste Egress System)

I got tired of putting off the vacuforming work out of concern for the quality of the pattern's sculpt-- curiosity was a big factor in this, and the hip section was not a really ambitious piece of work anyway. The result is better than I expected, no thanks to me. I used a fairly thick styrene (.040") for this, but only had 4 sheets of it. That meant 2 for the upper body, one sheet for this and one to screw up on. Not a very comfortable margin for me. I made the decision to use a vacuforming frame which was barely large enough for this piece (to save plastic) which meant cutting that sheet in half-- when I reconsidered, the remaining half wasn't big enough for the larger frame. So at least I'd get two shots at this... or so it seemed at the time. Onward. I apparently didn't consider that the self-sealing action of vacuforming around the base would orphan the leg cutaways. So instead of being drawn inwards, the plastic stretched from the apex to the base. This looks better than my original sculpt and would look even better if I hadn't seen what was happening, panicked, and pushed big indentations in the area. In hindsight, if I'd been a little smarter, I would have drilled some flow-through holes in the sculpture. But then I wouldn't have experienced the good fortune which can come from screwing up. Fortunately, the panic flaws were mainly in the area which was cut out for the legs. I knew the thing was going to need patching anyway. I might have tried this a second time if only the pattern hadn't been destroyed while trying to demold the part. The slight undercuts you see at the top are quite enough to trap the rigid pattern within-- The decision is whether to cut through the plastic or extract the pattern in pieces. I decided to sacrifice the pattern since I couldn't tell whether the plastic had fused to the wood putty (it didn't). Fortunately, the sewer pipe fits within perfectly and does a lot to rigidize the plastic piece.

I'm gradually moving towards the concept of creating an inner structural skeleton and attaching the body sections as panels. This is similar to the way R/C cars are built, with the body shell being a cosmetic cover. This differs from my original vague concept that the entire thing would be a rigid structure, like a model kit. The main advantage of doing it this way is that the thing will be easy to disassemble and reassemble. This should make it easier to insert the figure as well as detail the interior. It will also allow the body shell to be lighter since it wouldn't be part of the load-bearing structure, and therefore wouldn't have to be reinforced.

11/13/01-- Sorry, no Wallace & Grommet trouser pictures this time. Shucks. Drawings would be better accompaniment to a discussion the design issues, but I don't usually make 'em and I'm too lazy to do them just for the article. Soooo...

I've finished vacuforming the main body shell. This time I paid more attention to the way vacuforming works and actually planned more thoroughly how I'd vacuform it. Doing it as one piece was never an option; if you're familiar with vacuforming, you know that it's closer to plaster casting than it is to silicone casting. That means avoid undercuts unless you want to dig out the trapped pattern section, or make strategic cuts in the vacuformed shell. It would make sense for this to be parted as right and left halves because it would be easier to demold. However, to avoid a seam running down the center, I chose to do it as front & back parts with some overlap. This overlap extended the front vacuform slightly down the slope of the back half, creating an slight undercut condition. I made some of those strategic cuts in the front section to demold the undercut created by the overlap area. A bigger problem was that the flat sides slope inward toward the front. This wouldn't be a problem for the front half, but would create a pretty severe undercut problem for the back half if it were cut straight across. To solve this problem, the flat side ovals were included in the front section, but were cutouts in the back section. Ultimately, this didn't make much difference. I ended up cutting the front ones out anyway. Fortunately, the pattern was demolded without damage... this may come in handy later for making parts which need to conform to the curvature (like a hatch?).

The vacuforming process stretches and thins the plastic sheet so the .040" sheets were probably closer to .015" after the parts were formed: The depth of the part is a big factor in this and the plastic had to do a lot of stretching. Consequently, it became necessary to reinforce the vacuformed pieces. I thought of and experimented with several materials for this-- A&B putty, fiberglass resin, thought of putting plastic or brass ribbing in-- but settled for good old urethane resin, poured in slush-mold fashion from the inside. This had the advantage of going down in thin coatings (to keep weight down), but could be directed into thicker buildups for extra reinforcement... plus it cured quickly.

Reinforcing the body shell and figuring out how things might be assembled went on at the same time I was working on the arms. I took the lazy way out and snatched some prebuilt arms from a giant Terminator robot toy. These seemed to be about the right length and had a lot of articulation. However, they lacked the bicep articulation, so I added some by cross-cutting the upper arm and inserting a screw. I figure that these arms would be eventually covered by panels so they wouldn't look so skeletal and "Terminator"-ish. Having the panels open to reveal the skeletal stuff would be kind of neat too.

Attaching the arms presented a new problem. I'd been working on attaching them with screws to an inner brass frame, but soon realized that it would be a real bitch to get the arms lined up with the body shell halves. I therefore decided to use the back shell as part of the rigid frame, attach thicker side panels to it and screw the arm mounts to them. The front shell would be a separate part (unless I build a hatch) which would be fitted to the rest of the robot, arms & all. The arms are quite heavy, so this is why it was so necessary to rigidize the back shell with resin. It may be necessary to build additional support across the front.

A key strategy of this project has been to try out ideas in a general, reversible way and to create subassemblies. Very little has actually been assembled and everything that's been assembled can be taken apart. That means very little glue & putty, and a lot of assembly with screws. This has another advantage-- it lets you fix things that might later break.

11/18/01-- After having reached that point where the pingpong ball with limbs could be seen in its entirety, I redid a few things. The arms were reinforced with thick strips of brass on the inside. These run from the arms and wrap around the back to dampen the tendency for the arms to "flap" horizontally. The sewer pipe midsection was replaced with a 4-ring section, which gave the guy inside a little more headroom. This meant a near total diassembly, and while the project was in that state, I replaced the framework which joined the leg assembly to the sewer pipe. The original one was a complicated contraption held together by a bunch of screws and ran a brass "spine" up the figure. The new design is simple: It's the front-to-back center strut on the leg assembly which screws to the front & back of the sewer pipe. I should mention that the sewerpipe is the robot's central, or structural frame. The legs are bolted to it, the hip cover is screwed to it, and the body sections encircle it and are supported by it. It's the most rigid and stable piece in the entire robot, and happily, holds self-tapping screws really well.

It would have been easier to simply screw the back body section to the sewer pipe, but I wanted the thing to have waist rotation. (This, despite the observation that it would not be a useful thing for the robot's interior controls to move independent of the operator; and in the real world, having your legs trapped in wells as your body was twirled 360 degrees might be kinda painful. But I don't need to remind you that I think the idea of a man inside a robot suit is pretty questionable anyway!) So... I eyeballed a cutline along the front bodyshell and nervously did the deed. The bottom half was screwed to the backsection to enclose a rib on the sewerpipe. The top half now becomes a removeable "hatch", for access. I doubt I'll be able to hinge it, and I really haven't thought of how it's going to stay put. Right now, it just fits in place and makes the thing look like an oversized eyeless smiley button with limbs.

At this stage, it seemed like a good idea to work on the interior... the fun stuff! As with the exterior, very few subassemblies are "committed"-- that is, permanently glued or puttied in place. At the final stage of the project, paint and decals go on, so you want to be able to access various subassemblies for finish work.

I really wanted to make a padded seatback, since I'd never done a quilted anything before. This was pretty easy-- an old unbrella for material and a used filter pad (cleaned of course) from my aquarium. This is strapped to a frame from a car model that I was never going to build. I got quite a few useful pieces from that model, and a few more I wanna use, hoping to shoehorn them in somewhere. The control joysticks also came from that model, and they're screwed to a rubber tank tread which is glued to the underside of the rounded control panels (which look kind of like...breasts!) which were the arm sections of that robot kit whose feet I stole. They act like self-centering joysticks and the flexibility makes it easier to fit the figure inside. The other halves of the arm sections are in the process of being modified for gauges. To me, this is what "kitbashing" is, in the model-building sense. The term, as adopted by the Joe community to mean outfit swapping, collides with this meaning in projects where the distinction between models & dolls gets blurred (which would probably be about half of one percent). Anyway... yadda, yadd, yadda.

You must have noticed the 1:1 hand reaching to the backside to activate the momentary contact switch for the light, trying to hold it still during the two seconds it took to capture this picture? This is actually pretty kewl. The light is inside a ball joint from the Terminator toy, on a telescoping section which goes into the body as a coiled cord, and out the back to a powerpack from a 3-3/4" Lanard toy figure. The wires outside the robot are wrapped with fine silver wire, which makes them look like spring wire cabling. It's tedious, but the technique is useful for simulating bellowed air hoses as well.

Would you stop playing those stupid video games and just come to bed???


The shoulder pads give it that manly robo kinda look, doncha think?


11/22/01-- For smaller pieces like the shoulderpads and arm coverings, coming up with patterns isn't as big a deal as it was for the main body. The shoulderpads were simply a half-spherical shape (some kind of Christmas ornament), and the arm/leg coverings were quickly sculpted in polyclay. For small pieces like this, the sacrifice of clay for a disposable pattern is insignificant. Clay can be built up much more quickly and thickly than wood putty can -- the difference between spending a couple hours versus a couple days -- so it was a logical choice.

Throughout this project, a lot of time and thought has gone into figuring out how stuff was going to fit together and be attached. It's a vital part of the process, as important as figuring out how to make the parts. Of course, it's a good idea to think of that before you make a part but I tend to wing it, assuming I'll figure something out.

Attaching the shoulderpads was especially frustrating. In my medieval armor projects, attaching plates was straightforward and simple-- use leather or any flexible material to join them. Such construction allows the parts to swivel and twist fluidly at any angle. However, such an approach would seem inappropriate in a robot project. I therefore went about trying to devise a hinging system-- hinges on the side panels and on the shoulderpad, joined by a short segment of rubber tank tread. I tried lots of variations, even drilling holes in the side panels. Nothing worked. Nothing gave the proper drape and flexibility, at least within the limited space available and given that I didn't want to make significant cosmetic alterations. Soooo... back to simplicity: a couple of vinyl straps did the trick. It's amazing how much time you can waste trying to do stuff the hard way.

The arm & leg coverings provided another opportunity to explore attachment solutions. Each arm segment covering (forearm & upper arm) consisted to two pieces: A vacuformed front and back shell. Although having openable panels would be nice, my basic design goal was to make them removeable for painting, to add interior detail, or just to have an option for reversing the design decision. Simply gluing them on was not a desirable option. There were several hurdles to overcome; the plastic was very thin and when the halves were fitted together, they rattled and rotated around on the arm. Due to the imprecise fabrication, the forearm segment openings were cut generously and were much larger than the circumference of the arm. To solve this problem, I fitted the arms at the wrist and before the elbows with short lengths of PVC cable guides (the stuff that looks like bellows hose). This gave a tighter and less slippery fit for the coverings to hang onto, almost like an O-ring. The edges of the coverings fit nicely in the depression rings in the hose segment. The front and back halves were glued together along one side, cinched to fit the rings at the ends, and secured to the ring with small screws. As a result, the coverings fit tightly to the figure and the modification can be easily disassembled.

This didn't work elsewhere though (although I tried)-- the cable guides didn't fit the upper arms. Besides being the wrong shape at the upper end, at the elbow end the cable guide interferred with the hinging and pistons. After drilling a bunch of unnecessary holes to discover all this, I ended up doing it the obvious way-- I screwed the damn coverings to the upper arms. Good. Nice & snug. The leg coverings and knee caps went pretty much the same way, without the trial and error holes.

If you've made it this far, congratulations-- you're probably as tired of reading as I am of working on this thing. The last phase of assembling the basic structure has been like the modeling version of skimming. I've rushed because I've been curious to see how this would look as a complete figure. I wasn't sure if it was going to end up looking like the walking ping pong ball, or the smiley button with legs... There were some real concerns about all that. Whew... I'm actually kinda pleased with how it looks! I've been very lucky considering there never was a complete design on paper-- almost everything happened on the fly. I didn't plan to use the sewer pipe-- I found it after I'd sculpted the top section and it seemed an almost perfect fit. Likewise with the shoulderpads-- other than a vague notion that I'd probably do something there-- in fact, I was thinking about putting extra arms or utensils on the sides-- the specific look didn't gel until I made 'em. I was blown away when I saw how right the half-spheres looked there.

Anyway... I should spare you all the self-congratulatory crap and finally move on to the next page of this text-heavy sucker... it ain't over yet!

Happy Thanksgiving.


SF3D/Ma.K.    PART 2 | 3 | 4