Interview with I-Wei Huang, the Amazing Steam Robot Builder (Video)


After seeing I-Wei Huang's most recent steam robot creation "R2S2" on the internet, we felt compelled to learn more. Not only was he willing to answer our questions, and explain the whole build process including some tough challenges, he was also kind enough to provide a special video (see below) that includes the initial robot setup process and the robot in action -

Lem: The R2S2 design is really impressive. It was obviously done with a lot of attention to detail, care, and a real appreciation of the robot itself. Have you always been a fan of Star Wars and R2-D2?

I-Wei: Yes, I am an original StarWars fan. Actually, Star Wars was my first exposure to robots, and like many people, R2-D2 was my favorite character in the movie. Decades passed, and I started making steampunk inspired machines. I was always on the look out for unique ways to make use of this old form of power. R2 was a no brainer, I knew that sooner or later I had to attempt it.

Lem: About how long did it take to do all the design and modifications once you decided to tackle the project?
I-Wei: The build went fairly quick, once I had gathered all the parts needed, it took only a few weeks - working on it mostly on weekends.
Lem: It must have been challenging to find the right robot chassis to start with, and then to modify it for the steam generator and engines.
I-Wei: The main Hasbro R2D2 was not easy to come by, because basically I am cheap. And, I wanted a used broken one, because I needed to gut it to install all the steam equipment and mechanisms. I don't think that I would have been able to the tear-down if I had started with a working droid. I don't have any real machining skills, so I relied on the Hasbro R2D2's main body/chassis and gearbox.
Lem: What can you tell us about the mechanical design?
I-Wei: Since the steam engines were mounted externally, I ran the drive via meccano sprockets and chains. I mounted the boiler at slightly less of a slant than the R2 body. This was important to make sure the water level through the sight glass isn't too far off, and also so that water doesn't get into the steam outlet. This arrangement also helped the robots balance, as R2S2 would have been too back heavy, and risk tipping over while going forward.
Lem: Were there any challenges that really had you worried, or losing sleep at night?
I-Wei: During the initial testing, I was really afraid that I might have spent all this time making it, only to have it melt under the extreme heat needed to generate enough steam. I started with low flame and slowly opened the valve to check the temperature in all the vulnerable parts. Luckily, the insulation around the body held.
Lem: It must get pretty hot.
I-Wei: There is quite a bit of heat on the head dome, even thought it is not close to the burner, the heat build up as it rises up to the robots dome, caused a lot of concern about melting the plastic parts. I cut a pretty big hole on the top of the dome to allow the heat to escape, and so far it hasn't melted anything.
Lem: How about the steam boiler and engines? Were they brand new, or did you have to really hunt to find what you needed to build the robot?
I-Wei: The cylinderical body was just absolutely perfect for a vertical boiler, but tracking one down that would fit inside R2, and have enough room to spare for insulation wasn't easy.
The Cheddar boiler came from eBay, as most of the steam engines and materials that I use. It was an old beast. Cheddar steam engines and boilers are my favorite, but Cheddar has been out of business for a long time, and parts are very hard to come by. It's not unusual for some of the parts I find to be several decades old.
Lem: You mentioned before that you don't have strong manufacturing skills. What type of mods were did it require to get R2S2 up and running successfully?
I-Wei: I had strong reservations about whether or not the boiler would still hold pressure. Thankfully,  I only had to replace some fittings and glass guage, nothing major. With some silver soldering, I extended the pressure guage tubing so that the gauge would be visible through R2's head. The Wilesco steam engines were salvaged from my "Steam Crab." That project had some mechanical and boiler issues and became more trouble than it was worth.
Lem: What's the public reaction been like so far?
I-Wei: Out of all my robots, this one has generated the most publicity and attention, far and away. I guess it reached out to the mainstream public much more than any of my other contraptions.
Lem: How about the other builders and purists? What was their reaction like?
I-Wei: It seems like most reporters, writers, and bloggers call it a "steampunk R2D2." Of course the more rigirous steampunk builders and fans complained that the robot has plastic and uses R/C controls and the materials aren't limited to what was available during the Victorian period.
Actually, I've never called it "steampunk", and I don't usually call these "robots" in the true sense of the word either. I did want to give it a strong  "steampunk" flavor. I did go as far as applying some cheesy wood grain and brass decals. If I had the skills to make a full brass chassis, I would :)
Lem: Have you done any fine tuning or improvements since you first got the robot running?
I-Wei: I spent the last couple of nights tweaking with it more, trying to coax more speed and running time out of it. I was able to track down an issue with the burner, so now it runs much hotter. This produces more steam pressure, but more importantly it improved the rate at that the boiler heats the water and produces steam.
Also, I was able to gear it up slightly by using smaller sprockets. So instead of a snail crawl, it is just now slow. It is always the case that these miniature steam boilers can never keep up with the demands of what I put the engines through, and that's the biggest pain, and challenge, in building these things.
Lem: Will people have any opportunity to see R2S2 and some of your other fantastic steam cr eations in person?
I-Wei: Yes, of course. It's great to see the look on people's faces when they see these robots for the first time. Hopefully, it will inspire some budding builders to get actively involved, and start building some robots of their own. I'll be demonstrating some of my robots, including R2S2, at the Make Magazine Maker Faire at the San Mateo Fairgrounds (San Francisco Bay Area) May 19 & 20, 2007. Then June 15, 16, & 17th, I'll have them fired up and operating at the RoboGames competition at Fort Mason in San Francisco. I really hope a lot of robot fans will make the effort to come out and see us.
Related links:
Official r2s2 webpage - Additional photos and build information
Crabfu SteamToys website - Check out some of the other Crabfu robot collection, including a steam powered Armatron robot arm.


2 thoughts on “Interview with I-Wei Huang, the Amazing Steam Robot Builder (Video)

  1. I-Wei, another masterpiece! Steam and Star Wars… who would’ve thought! Amazing work.

  2. Thanks Matt…. I assume I’d see you at RoboGames this year? And thanks robots-dreams for the interview!

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