August 18, 2013

Oakland 'maker' assembles high-tech Iron Man suit

Homage to comic book hero cost $2,000 and took 400 hours to build

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

OAKLAND — Fans of comic book superhero Iron Man know that the man who wears a high-tech armored suit to battle evil is named Tony Stark, played in the hit movie franchise by actor Robert Downey Jr.

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Thomas Lemieux works on an arc reactor to go on his life-size Iron Man costume, in the basement of his Oakland home recently. Lemieux, 28, said he plans to wear the costume at the Hawthorne Hotel's Halloween Ball on Oct. 26 in Salem, Mass.

Photo by Jeff Pouland

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Thomas Lemieux flexes his forearm, attached with an electrode, to activate a bionic repulsor, while working on his life-size Iron Man costume in the basement of his Oakland home recently.

Photo by Jeff Pouland

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INSIDE IRON MAN

The basic design for Thomas Lemieux's Iron Man suit was taken from a papercraft model he found on Internet sites devoted to making costumes.

He printed each of the estimated 1,000 pieces onto cardstock, which he used to make stencils. The stencils were used to trace the pieces onto sheets of foam, which he then cut out with a surgical scalpel. Each piece was covered with eight layers of a spray-on adhesive, and then treated with three layers of a plastic coating meant for use on tool handles. He assembled the larger pieces, such as the helmet, by taping them together into a cohesive unit and then sealing them together with glue. The various units are then held on the wearer's body using straps and buckles.

He plans to sand the surface, coat it multiple times with car paint — sunburst yellow, inferno red, and gunmetal gray — before finishing it with a coat of gloss.

Lemieux built the electronics from scratch, using circuit boards and other items he purchased from Radioshack and specialty online stores. The electronics, cased in Altoids mint tins, will be housed in cavities within the suit, and will be powered on and off by four toggle switches Lemieux plans to install near his shoulders.

Other materials he has used to build the suit include guitar strings to hold the various pieces of the gauntlets together, contact paper commonly used to line shelves, a push-button click light, SD cards of the type commonly found in cameras, AV cables, circuit boards and servo motors.

Underneath the armor, Lemieux will wear color-coded tights, gloves, and a shirt, as well as a cold vest, which is stored in a freezer and keeps the wearer cool for four hours.

But when people see Iron Man walking around Oakland this fall, the man inside the armor is likely to be Thomas Lemieux, a mild-mannered, 28-year-old hospital worker who spent more than $2,000 and 400 hours building the elaborate costume in his basement.

Lemieux is an example of a "maker," the tech-savvy tinkerers of a new generation who are using the Internet to take creative and oddball home workshop projects to a whole new level.

While he may not measure up to the fictional Stark, a self-described "genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist," Lemieux does have some things in common with the character. Like Stark, he has a healthy interest in electronics, the confidence and perseverance to move his projects from the planning board to the workbench, and a tendency to work on his creations at all hours of the night.

The suit, made of sheets of foam rubber, won't stop bullets, fly, or allow Lemieux to swing cars like a baseball bat. But it does come with some nifty gadgets.

A rotating circle of LED lights simulate a futuristic "arc reactor" in the chest, and Lemieux has preprogrammed a sound board that synthesizes his voice into a robotic approximation of the movie character. The sound board is also equipped with various audio clips, allowing Lemieux to evoke certain movie scenes or have brief conversations with supporting characters.

Lemieux said the most difficult challenge was the helmet, designed to open and close automatically with servo motors.

The suit's gauntlets contain "repulsors," beams of force that serve the dual purposes of allowing Iron Man to fly, and blast his enemies.

Lemieux's repulsors, which light up and sound like the ones in the movie, are activated by a biometric system that reads the electrical impulses in his forearm. The effect is that, when Lemieux raises his palm, the repulsor is deployed.

Lemieux said he has dreamed about advancing his creation to the point that it would actually have some functionality. He's seen one homemade suit online that comes equipped with a real laser, strong enough to burn holes in pieces of paper or pop balloons.

Jetpacks do exist that allow people to fly, he said, and some warehouse workers use metal exoskeletons to pick up pallets, like a forklift.

But generally, the technology is not small enough, streamlined enough, practical enough, or cheap enough for him to incorporate such elements into his suit — yet.

In the meantime, Lemiuex spends many of his waking hours either actively creating his suit, or thinking about it while working a night shift at MaineGeneral Medical Center's Thayer campus as a sterilization technician.

On his work breaks, he sometimes carves a piece of foam into the next bit of armor. When he gets a good idea at work, he scribbles it down on a sheet of paper to take back to the multi-room finished basement of his father's house, where he lives.

In the wee hours of the morning, Lemieux stays awake, cutting, gluing, painting, sanding, wiring and planning his way to achieving his dream.

Maine makers doing it themselves

Hardcore do-it-yourselfers like Lemieux are makers, a new word that gives a different spin to an old concept, according to Richard Sisco, of Skowhegan.

"A maker is a do-it-yourselfer, someone who will get their hands dirty for fun or for something they need," he said.

The term maker was coined in 2005 by Dale Dougherty, co-founder of the California-based Make Magazine. The magazine sponsors "Maker Faires," at which makers show off their creations — ranging from practical to artistic to whimsical — to the public. The first one, held in 2006 in San Mateo, Calif., drew 20,000 people, a number that has grown consistently during the last seven years.

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Additional Photos

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Thomas Lemieux tests a bionic repulsor, which activates the hands on his life-size Iron Man costume, in the basement of his Oakland home recently.

Photo by Jeff Pouland

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A hand with a bionic repulsor lights up in Thomas Lemieux's workshop, in the basement of his Oakland home, recently.

Photo by Jeff Pouland

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Thomas Lemieux works on a voice changer for his life-size Iron Man costume, in the basement of his Oakland home, recently.

Photo by Jeff Pouland

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Materials for Thomas Lemieux's life-size Iron Man costume, in the basement of his Oakland home recently.

Photo by Jeff Pouland

  


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