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Interview with the Real Iron Man. Or Steel Man.

You guys remember Tony Stark Barry Amstead right? The amazing individual who is creating a steel suit Iron Man suit? Just you wait to hear what he plans to do with it! We snagged an interview with the intelligent builder, and I must say while his project is pretty Bad Ass, you can’t beat the person building it for coolness.

Let’s start with the obvious stuff.

You’re building an Iron Man suit, but does that mean Iron Man is your favorite Marvel hero, or movie; or is there a secret contender? Who is your runner up?

I don’t really have a favorite. I like the usual suspects, Superman, Batman etc but I don’t go for spandex and lycra myself. My masculinity will only suffer so much.

Fair enough. Should I ask what you thought of Batman vs Superman then? Did you see it?

I haven’t yet. Reports are that it was bad. I’ll probably wait for DVD.

That seems like a good idea. Our reviewers hated it.

What made you decide to build the Iron Man suit?

I like the tech of it. It’s a complex suit and that’s the challenge. I stumbled across cosplay and Iron Man Pepakura (paper craft) suits by accident online and the rest is history.

What skills did you have going into this that helped you design and build this? What have you had to learn?

I’ve always been good with my hands. Although I have no trade qualifications, I have my own workshop and just learned by doing, researching, asking and YouTubing.

I was always good at art and sculpture even very young. The suit has forced me to learn new skills and improve on many old ones.

So far it has involved: computer and mathematical work, scaling and ratios, mechanical advantage, engineering, physics and robotics, electronics and lighting, painting, panel-beating, welding, textiles and adhesives, fasteners and all their alternatives.

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Holy Moly. Did you learn all those things in your many trades, or did you have to study some of them for the project?

I’ve picked up a few practical skills on different jobs, but mostly practiced and honed on an, “as needed” basis. Internet research, YouTube tutorials, plus numerous, “soldier’s five” instructions from tradie friends whenever I sought technique and improvement. Right now I am learning metallurgy and bladesmithing from friends and experts in that game.

Wow neat!

What came as a surprise? What didn’t behave the way you thought it should? What compromises have you had to make?

No real surprises. Although I usually wing it and meet challenges on the fly, solving them as I go – I generally have a pretty good idea of what I am getting into when I start and have a good mental picture of the finished product.

Compromises have been in the cost of some things – I can’t afford much and in some cases movie accuracy was forsaken to overcome function challenges. Being surrounded in rigid steel one has to accept that of course there will be some limited movement.

Actually, a big surprise has come in the form of support from crazy places! I have had complete strangers on the internet from all over the world donate tools, consumables and even some petty cash towards getting this finished. Lots of people are behind my cause and want to get involved however they can.

Hear that guys? You can help on this project. Right now the only need for donations goes to padding and electronics, but those still cost. You can contact Barry through his observatory site here.

How does it feel to wear the suit? Is it disorienting? How is the weight distribution? Does it take a lot of strength to move?

All things being equal, I was quite surprised at how comfortable it was, even on the first full test-fit. Each time I test-fit, my marker pen comes out and notes pinch-points, areas of adjustment, padding, tight spots etc. Walking in it takes a little bit of getting used to, especially with vision coming from video glasses inside the helmet via a wide-angle camera. All this is a matter of practice until the new movement becomes instinct. At 40kg, it’s not as heavy as you might think. You can subtract the entire weight of the legs and feet from that as they are on the ground, supported on a strut and ankle pivot. You have to remember that knights of old rode horseback and fought battles in this stuff. A couple of hours in a hospital for me will be fine.

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That’s a good point. I suppose it is quite like a suit of arms.

How long did you spend sketching out plans ahead of time?

Not much. I downloaded a few reference pictures, pepakura designer, pepakura viewer, some Iron Man pepakura files and just got stuck into it.

How much of the process is planning out what you are going to do, and how much is experimenting until something works?

Most of it is planning on the go with a good knowledge of how things work and realistic limitations in mind.

Experimenting is only for the really difficult things like actuating moving parts with limited space for motor-driven actuators.

Some of the painting required a few sample cans to achieve the desired effect. Hands and fingers are proving to be very difficult and experimenting is crucial. I think I’ve tried around seven prototypes in cardboard, aluminum, foam and steel.

How many prototypes do you think you have gone through now? How close do you feel you are getting to being happy with what you have?

My first suit was pepakura, hardened with fiberglass resin then reinforced with fiberglass mat and sculpted with car-body filler.

I got about half way through the suit before I decided to move on to metal. In between I built a prototype in cardboard to get all the tailoring right before tracing those templates onto steel for my third and final suit.

The steel suit is only your third? Wow! Have you had to take parts of it apart and put it back together for better fit or maneuverability?

Yes, a few times. Luckily for me the default scale on the pepakura program was for a person just over 6′ tall of average build. That’s me so the adjustments were really only to deal with the unrealistic superhero/comic book proportions, especially the waistline.

Can that helmet really fit over your head with the light systems in it? What is it like when the lights are on? Can you see anything?, What kind of lights are they? That type doesn’t get hot does it?

My helmet fits very snug which is a big challenge to actuate the faceplate. Most other helmets I have seen are oversized to afford room for servo motors. I don’t want to look like a dashboard bobble-head so I am keeping proportions true to the character as much as possible. The helmet fits with LED lights inside, a micro-fan for bringing in fresh air and keeping the internal video-glasses fog-free. There is a tiny wide-angle camera mounted between the eyes and a motor in the chin area to drive the hinges on the faceplate.

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You really can see, that’s incredible. And you fit a micro fan in there? I’m surprised there’s room. But I could see it being necessary. (For the readers LED lights run cool) 

What are your hopes for what to do with the suit once it is built?

My mission has always been to wear it into kids hospitals to bring a couple of hours fun and excitement to their otherwise dull day.

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See everyone, I told you he had the most awesome reason!

How close do you think you are to that now. I’ve been following your tweets and you are on to painting parts of it. Does that mean you are close?

As soon as I involve other people on one of my projects, I am at the mercy of their timetable. If I had my way I, (and they) would be working on it day and night. Unfortunately my electronics expert who graciously volunteered to assist has a life of his own, so I must wait.

In the meantime, I have decided to move on to things I can do myself. Painting decisions were made because to get it done professionally in a shop would cost nearly $2000 AUD. I asked for sponsors but no one was interested. Besides, if I fall over and damage the suit, drop parts or something silly like getting caught in an elevator door, then its a $2k paint job ruined. At least if I paint it myself, I can fix it myself.

Ouch that’s a lot of money. Sounds like it would be good to have the ability to touch up your own paint. I hope your electrician gets back to you soon!

That’s about the project, but what about you? Last week you said you were out volunteer firefighting some bush fires? What does Barry Amstead do when he’s not building a suit? For work? For Fun? For humanity by the sounds of things?

I am currently a parks field officer with an Australian nature reserve, (Government). Part of my duties involve fire-fighting.

Prior to that I was a soldier for sixteen years in the Royal Australian Army, rigging parachute loads for airdrop, underslung operations under helicopters and air-land operations. I was a paratrooper, parachute jump master, physical training instructor, crew commander, section commander, drop-zone safety officer, transport manager and much more.

Before that I was raised and worked in remote Australia on cattle and sheep stations. I have mustered, (droving) cattle on horseback, motorbike, four wheel drive and helicopter. farming duties included ploughing, seeding and hay-carting, animal husbandry, chaff-cutting and shearing shed operations.

I’ve washed dishes in a a restaurant, shoveled shit for a living, worked on egg farms, packed bread on an assembly line, managed inventory and purchasing for a large international building company and driven trucks interstate and local.

Wow sounds like you’ve had quite the adventurous life. Is your sense of adventure satisfied by your creative work and your job? Or is their another adventure you have in mind. Climbing a mountain? Scuba diving through old wrecks?

I scuba once a year in a favourite spot down the coast. I have been taking groups of people caving, canyoning, abseiling and camping for over 20 years. As I have a family, much of my adventuring has ground to a halt. Part of the reason why my focus is now within my property boundaries. Once the kids are a little older, I may be able to venture out into the mountains again before I get too old.

What’s on the horizon? What other works or creative endeavors are mulling about your head as possible projects to sink your teeth into?

I have a MASSIVE project eight and a half meters long already started in my back shed, but on hold until Iron man is finished.

It’s a secret. I’m going to do this one a different way. Rather than blog it all the way, I am going to complete the entire project and document it as usual, but will reveal it only when complete, then unfold the story of how it came to be. Should be a good social experiment.

Wow, I’m really looking forward to finding out what that is!

I also need to continue with my observatory mission. I have built a two story dome in my front yard. Downstairs is a man-cave and upstairs is the observation deck, complete with a powerful telescope, cameras and robotic mount for long-exposure deep space astrophotography. The observatory is open to church and youth groups, scouts, home-schooled families and other interested parties for free.

That’s very generous and pretty amazing. Not everyone can say they have an observatory in their front yard. And that you let it be used for free for education is wonderful.

Sounds like you need a lot of room for all the things you have going on. Do you ever run out of space in your workshops? Do you have more than one workshop?

I have one workshop and another storage shed which I have cleared a little space for my next project. My property is not all that large and I ran out of room years ago! I’d really like a rural property with several sheds, each for different disciplines of work.

Sounds like a good goal to have for an inventive builder as yourself. That’s all the questions for now.

You can follow Barry Amstead on twitter, at imgur, on youtube. And you can check out his photo gallery and his observatory website. You can contact him here. And finally you can also check out his no longer updated – but still containing beautiful pictures – photography website.

Melissa Devlin
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Mike asked for a bio. I hate writing my own bio so I’m stealing parts of it from my own website. Why? Whenever I try spitting one of these out I either sound crazy, arrogant, insecure, or all three. It’s like sitting down at a wedding and being asked by a perfect stranger, “So tell me about yourself”. My mind always blanks and I’m left with the following: I’m the daughter of Keith Devlin, the internationally famous mathematician who sleeps with his socks on (Also known as NPR’s Math Guy). And Janet Devlin, internationally published playwright. Her recent work has been produced in Greece. Much earlier her Radio plays were performed by the BBC. I was born in the UK, as was my sister. My brother is American. I am deeply in love with Ace of Geeks cofounder, Jarys Maragopoulos. And I can confirm half of our arguments boil down to me being raised in a 1970’s time capsule of England transplanted to the states, and Jarys actually being from somewhere real. I tend to most often write about mental health issues (I’m openly Bipolar I), and what it’s like to emerge from a rock after ten years and discover there’s been a geek explosion in my absence. There. A bio that barely reveals anything about me. I really am English.

2 thoughts on “Interview with the Real Iron Man. Or Steel Man.

  1. Great to talk to you Melissa. I would like to add, that although I did fabricate the suit myself, I should acknowledge the 3D artists, ROBO3687, JFCustom and Sharkhead7854 for sharing their amazing pepakura (paper) templates. Without them, I would have to scratch-build every template from photo reference. Thank you for all your hard work gents.

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