15ft Tall Marching Robots

Specialz Ltd create bespoke special effects and custom made design pieces for the stage, theatre and events industries. Many of their projects involve lighting in essence, but as the company has grown and developed, they have become known for offering design and manufacturing services for more varied and diverse projects.

Specialz was commissioned to design and manufacture two 15ft tall, mechanical, marching, retro robots. Nicknamed George and Mildred, they were to be suspended at the back of the stage, above the performers during part of the show. One robot, George, had a programmable LED display array in his stomach, while Mildred had various moving light fixtures embedded in hers. LED arrays were also used in their eyes and mouths for additional animation effects. Their greatest party trick however, was for lasers to radiate from their pupils and cast intense beams out over the audience. The robots were to be raised discreetly into position behind a screen during the show, so that once fully deployed, they would be revealed and their arms and legs would begin to move in a ‘marching’ motion, whilst their heads rotated left and right in a continuous scanning motion. At the same time the various embedded lighting, smoke and laser effects would be executed. After the set piece was finished, the whole thing would have to be de-rigged behind temporary screens and removed from the stage area, whilst the show continued uninterrupted.

I undertook a variety of tasks on this project, working closely with the rest of the team at Specialz, who handled all the electronic control and cabling elements, as well as the design of transportation dollies and associated hardware. I was responsible for the entire mechanical and fabrication design of the robots, including overall structure, internal mechanisms, exterior cladding and 3rd party effects integration. I was responsible for producing all necessary manufacturing documentation and data as required. Also, during the latter phase of the project, I worked in house at Specialz’ manufacturing facility with the rest of the team to help build and commission the robots.

Initially I was supplied with a basic CAD model by the client’s production team, to show the overall concept and desired aesthetic appearance. I was asked to take on and further develop this concept, to show how the robots could be practically constructed and how the mechanical aspects, which would enable them to move, would be integrated. This early phase also enabled the project to be properly costed. Because this was a bespoke, one-off project, any manufacturing processes which required expensive tooling would be unsuitable. For example, the body panels needed to be made using standard sheet metal processes, rather than custom press tooling. Also, any internal motor drive systems would need to utilise standard, off-the-shelf components wherever possible, in order to avoid long lead times and high costs from specialist suppliers. The method I proposed and ultimately employed for the marching motion was essentially a cam driven, synchronised pendulum drive arrangement. As is often the case in the entertainment industry, the time constraints on this project were immense, so we could not clearly split the design, purchasing and fabrication stages. Working very long hours for a number of weeks, these elements all had to happen somewhat in tandem in order to bring everything together and meet the deadline.

To find out more about Specialz Ltd, visit www.specialz.co.uk or call Dave Smith on 0121 766 7100