The Internet Craftsmanship Museum Presents:

I-Wei Huang

Added to museum: 4/11/06

A great imagination, mechanical skills and a good sense of humor combine to create unique steam powered robots

I-Wei is seen surrounded by some of his creations. (Click photo for larger image.)

Steam engines like you’ve never seen before

The capricious steam powered robots designed and built by I-Wei Huang are becoming pretty famous. In March, 2006, NBC telecast a segment featuring some of his fanciful contraptions, and his web site is getting a lot of attention too. A number of articles have been published about his work. Though I-Wei doesn’t classify himself as a great craftsman, his work is so outrageously clever, we thought it deserved to be recognized here.

Craftsmanship is not just about fine detail and gleaming finishes. It is also about making complicated arrangements of parts work together smoothly and effortlessly to accomplish some task. Though most of the components in I-Wei’s structures were already made by others, he combines them in ways never envisioned by the previous makers.

I-Wei considers himself an artist first and foremost. In fact, his regular work is in the field of animation. It is somehow appropriate that his second love is to animate objects, giving them movement and a life of their own. He says that “wacky/silly” ranks high in his book, but since form follows function, the objects he builds must not only look cool, they must also work properly. He is interested in old tech, but with a twist, in the spirit of the steampunk movement.

Early skills developed through tinkering at home

He has no engineering or mechanical training other than a few drafting classes in school. His skills were developed from early childhood by experimentation. He says, “Ever since I can remember, I've been curious about everything, and loved to figure out how things work on my own. When I was a young kid, I used take things apart—telephones, radios, general household appliances—just so I could see what makes them tick. Sometimes I would get into trouble with my parents because I could not always put them back together, but most of the time I could, and they never knew I had played with them. I was always the handyman around the household. I just loved to put things together or fix them, regardless of whether they needed fixing or not, and figure out how each thing worked.”

No fancy shop or tools (yet)

I-Wei says he currently only has his studio room that he dedicates to working on these machines. His workspace consists of just a simple shelf, table, and storage boxes. He looks forward to someday having a garage or shop and learning more about the process of machining so he can more easily make exactly the parts he needs. He is in the process of obtaining a small precision lathe to get started. At present he uses mostly hand tools and a Dremel mototool.

I-Wei in his small desktop shop with some of his creations on shelves behind him. Lack of space has not limited his creative energy.

Got steam?

He uses real steam engines to drive his machines, which he controls by means of radio controlled servo motors. He says, “These steam machines are real miniature live steam engines. The principles are simple: heat + water = steam. Steam pushes pistons and provides power in a circular motion. How you harness that work is up to you. I use mainly stationary or marine engines to start. They use alcohol, gas, or solid fuel tablets for heat and require oiling on each run. Distilled water is recommended, and steam pressure can build up around .8 - 1.5 bars, or around 10-20 PSI, which is not a lot of pressure. They have safety valves which release the steam at a certain pressure, so as not to 'blow up,' and typical running time is about 10 minutes.”

Four of I-Wei's steam powered creations—from left to right are two versions of a steam tank, a steam walker and a steam locomotive/centipede. (Click photo to see larger image.)

The design process

He calls himself “An artist with an overblown imagination.” He is a concept artist and animator by trade, and often draws steampunk inspired machines. He puts quite a bit of thought into his drawings, so when he started making these contraptions, it was a natural process for him to be in tuned to the mechanics of how things could work. Visualizing and planning in his head helps tremendously in making a successful machine. He is always thinking of and trying interesting solutions to existing (and non-existing) problems. It is in his nature to be creative, and often make silly things—art or machine. However, he still relies as much on proven mechanics as he can. He says, “I hack things together more than I invent something from scratch. A lot of the time it takes to make one of these machines is searching for clutches, chassis, leg systems and such.” He calls this “Frankensteining.” Once things are planned out it's just a matter of figuring out how to mount the engines, boilers, R/C gear, and trial and error on the gearing for optimal speed vs. torque. He considers himself more of a hacker than an inventor, although he hopes to learn enough about machining to build most everything from scratch someday.

Meccano/Erector set parts make for relatively quick proof of concept, and he uses them for support as well as mechanics. (The walker is made of entirely from Meccano parts.) He says, “I usually start with pulleys and bands, as they are easy to work with, then upgrade them to sprockets and chains once proven. Finding the right gearing ratio for the job is a tricky process. Steam engines produce high RPM but low torque. They stall easily. Put your pinky finger on the flywheel with the slightest pressure and it stops. Over time I've developed a sense of how much a machine must be geared down to perform the work, based on the engine and weight, but gearing is still largely a trial and error process and requires quite a bit of time to tune it.”

I-Wei wins two gold medals at the 2006 RoboGames

In June, I-Wei put his machines up against 300 other robots in the 2006 RoboGames and won gold medals in the two categories he entered: Kinetic ArtBots (Steam Walker) and Best of Show (Trilobite Tank). Here are some video links posted after the games that show the Steam Walker in action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJPtUGWJ2g4 and http://youtube.com/watch?v=4Rrdi1Fut1c.

The two gold medal winners, "Trilobite Tank" and "Steam Walker" from the 2006 RoboGames. (Click photo to view a larger image.)

Most recent projects and links to see more of his work

I-Wei is currently building a steam spider with Joe Klann at www.mechanicalspider.com. He feels Joe deserves recognition in this field too. Photos and movies will be available soon on his web site at www.crabfu.com where you can also see examples of his current work in both steam inventions and animation. If you are looking for a unique shirt or coffee mug, he even offers a line of products bearing images of some of his inventions. Links to the NBC segment and other media coverage of his work can be viewed at http://www.crabfu.com/steamtoys/media/.

In 2009, several major publications have picked up on I-Wei's small "swashbots". These small, buglike bots are based on the movement of the swashplate used in R/C helicopters. He was even selected by Popular Mechanics as one of the ten "Backyard Geniuses" honored in their August, 2009 issue. Here are some links to articles:

• Popular Mechanics: http://crabfuartworks.blogspot.com/2009/08/popular-mechanics-backyard-genius.html

• Make magazine: http://crabfuartworks.blogspot.com/2009/08/make-magazine-bot-state-of-art-swashbot.html

• Popular Science: http://crabfuartworks.blogspot.com/2009/07/putterbot-in-popular-science-magazine.html

• Discovery Channel video from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbsMGAGFZ3c&feature=player_embedded#

• Modern Marvels video from the History Channel on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9E6HFN-dPS8

• Many scanned magazine articles are available on Flickr at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/68422197@N00/sets/72157622441714411/

Here are several examples of I-Wei's work:

(Click photos for larger images.)

Three steam powered robots exhibit various methods of locomotion. Most parts are off-the-shelf or kit parts, but they are combined in ways never envisioned by their manufacturers.
  A steam tractor (on left) joins the other three engines. A propane tank provides the energy source for heating the water to create steam.
  Another view of the four robots. 
A top view of the tractor.
The tractor and Radio Control transmitter that allows the operator to control its movements.
Closeups of the tank construction, gearing and servos.
I-Wei's shop is at present confined to a small desktop with storage shelves that hold his finished robots and works in progress. He hopes to soon have more room to expand his workshop and to include machine tools to make more of his own parts from scratch instead of spending the time to find existing parts that will work.
I-Wei makes his living as an animator, but he often includes steampunk contraptions in his work that are similar to the ones he builds in miniature. To make a convincing animation of a mechanical object, the details and motions have to be worked out pretty much as if the machine actually existed, so all the same thinking has to go into drawing it as does to make a physical model of it.
The steam tank is joined by an earlier version.
The locomotive with centepede drive mechanism works its way donw the sidewalk.
  A detail of the locomotive/centepede shows some of the fine workmanship that is incorporated into these fanciful designs. Figuring it out takes brainpower, but making all the parts work together takes craftsmanship. These small steam engines don't put out a lot of horsepower, so mechanisms must be efficient and properly geared.
Two views of the steam tank. A soft drink can gives a good idea of the size.
Front view of the steam tank.
This steam walker plods down the sidewalk as if it were out for a Sunday stroll. This robot won a gold medal for "Best Kinetic Artbot" at the 2006 RoboGames.
This robot called the "Trilobite Tank" was modeled to resemble the Trilobite—an aquatic creature with a hard shell that flourished for millions of years in many forms before becoming extinct. This robot won "Best of Show" at the 2006 RoboGames, competing against 300 other bots. The second photo shows the competitors and their robots at the games.
Future projects in the works: A steam powered rowing machine and a steam powered crab walker. We will feature more on these projects as photos become available. Check this page or the What's New page for updates.
R2S2 stands for R2Steam2, a double steam engine powered version of the R2D2 robot from the Star Wars movies. For many more photos of this robot and detailed photos of the build see http://www.crabfu.com/steamtoys/r2s2/.
The "Steam Beetle" has a sheet metal shell and folding wings but is mounted on a sturdy model truck chassis. For more on the build of this fanciful project see http://www.crabfu.com/steamtoys/rc_steam_beetle/.
I-Wei's first attempt at using a steam turbine to power a vehicle can be seen in the "Steam Turbine Tank" at http://www.crabfu.com/steamtoys/rc_steam_turbine_tank/. Included on this page are many photos and a link to a YouTube video of the tank in action. The high speed Jensen steam turbine is geared down through an elaborate set of gears to drive the tracked tank over a stack of logs.
In 2008 I-Wei created this small cockroach-like robot that moves by sliding its three legs in various directions. He calls it "SwashBot." His control of it is so good with the radio control joysticks that the bug really seems to have a little personality of its own as it bows, crawls and the little red eyes look around. For video of it in action on YouTube CLICK HERE.
A second version with similar movements is called "SwashBot 2". It is larger than the first bot. It looks  more crab-like and less like a bug, but the movements are similar. The second photo shows the two of them together. To see a YouTube video of SwashBot 2 in action CLICK HERE. To see more still photos of the two small robots on I-Wei's site CLICK HERE.
I-Wei's work was featured on the cover of the 10.08 issue of ieee Spectrum magazine, and the full article can be found at http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/oct08/6816/2.

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