Sculpting tiny robotic insects - or insectoid robots
February 9, 2016 1:15 PM   Subscribe

On the mid-life crisis project list for this year, I have something that includes making tiny models of robotic insects - things that look like insects, but on close inspection turn out to be mechanical. This is emphatically not steampunk - no cogs or lacquered brass - but rather things that appear as if they really do come from the far future where biomechanics and electronics have merged to form self-replicating, autonomous critters that clearly fill evolutionary niches. How do I do this?

I have the sort of motor skills and construction experience that come from building and fixing electronics for most of my life (I have worked at SMD level), but no model-making chops and no history of sculpting or designing with materials. I do have a very clear aesthetic in mind, which will involve metals, plastics and films to first create components which I'll then assemble, probably on a frame or body. The overall aim is tiny, intricate creations that merge biological cues with stuff that's clearly artificial but mysterious in nature - creating the effect in the viewer, I hope, that an intelligent pre-modern person would get if they peered into the back of a mobile phone.

My initial thoughts are to design the underlying body shape in CAD and 3D print it, possibly for lost-wax casting, and then ornament/extend through layering on components and exoskeletal materials. They do not need to be articulated nor robust; they will not be handled when finished, but they will be potted in translucent epoxy. They'll be one-offs.

But I've never done anything like this before, so I don't know what techniques will best match my abilities, what detail of precision I should aim for or how small I should go. What techniques should I investigate, what of this could I outsource, and what personal additional skills should I try and learn - either through classes or self-taught?
posted by Devonian to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Info on movie miniature effects construction and fine scale modes is what you want., etc.
posted by Sophont at 1:48 PM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd be tempted to start by collaging a mix of very small scale model parts- like for tiny trains, planes, etc-- with bits of toy plastic insects, then painting them in realistic shades. It would be a good way to understand how the shapes could fit together and get ideas, and practice the glueing techniques. Source: I know creature designers who start by doing Photoshop collages of different animals and machines etc.

Awesome project!
posted by Erasmouse at 1:59 PM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Saw this in the news today: cockroach-inspires-robot-that-squeezes-through-cracks/

Fly fishermen do something similar:
posted by at at 2:20 PM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Start with wire armatures, then build up the bodies using more wire. Just wire, bent and wrapped and stuffed together.

Once you get the hang of that and can create something you find acceptable, you'll be in a MUCH better position to start thinking about casting and other solutions.

...then go buy this book.
posted by aramaic at 2:28 PM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Depending on the finish and materials you may want to take two jewelry classes from your local rockhound club or community center, 'making a sliver ring' and 'casting a silver widget from a wax carve'.

...then go buy this book. You might supplement with The Mouldmakers Handbook and some smooth-on tutorials. I'd take a course if at all possible, the materials and techniques are fussy enough that you can save time and money with guidance from a mentor.

As a separate technique, there's painting and pouring and painting and pouring layers of resin.

For just potting in epoxy there's a bit of finesse to it.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:47 PM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

You can buy hard blue wax to sculpt components for lost wax casting. Also, a thing I did back in art school was to take tiny scale model kits, re-configure them and invest the styrene for casting. It worked more or less like wax but the final casting was maybe a bit rougher. Are you wanting these things to be the same scale as insects, or bigger?
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:45 PM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Here's an overview of small-scale bronze casting, which uses jewelry processes normally used on silver and gold; most of this stuff you could outsource to local or distant jewelry or art-bronze ceramic shell casting shops. Or your local community resources: rockhound club, etc.

Bronze takes an extraordinary range of patinas, not to mention vitreous enamels, resins, and paints. And is cheaper than silver.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:34 PM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

You can use jeweler's wax to sculpt very detailed pieces and then send them out for casting. Depending on how you like to work you can also sculpt in clay and then make a mold and final cast in wax to send out. Or you can sculpt using a material called cx5 but you have to use hot tools for that. Go to forums where people talk about making miniatures or model making or special effects as you can get good advice there. The Pop Sculpture Handbook has good info too. Ganoksin is a trove if jeweler s info and you will find out about wax carving there. Sorry for the lack of links I'm on my phone! Your projects sounds super fun and I'd love to hear about your progress. Message me if you want more materials info I just scratched the surface here. Good luck!
posted by catrae at 2:44 AM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone - this is exactly the sort of practical advice I was hoping for, and has given me several paths to investigate I wouldn't have thought of otherwise. I particularly like the idea of building up by wirewrapping, as this is something that I've done in the past (I'm a fan of wire as a sculptural material) and it's also a method of considerable antiquity - which appeals.As does the idea of building up from parts from model kits - I've watched quite a few prop replica Youtube videos (Adam Savage is particularly inspiring) and it's impressive how things can be repurposed.

There are jewelry, metal working and sculptural courses at a local college, and I'll get onto one of those too.

The end object I'm aiming for, btw, is the sort of amber you might find in 100,000 years time, with these critters embedded. Nature has thoughtfully provided thousands of beautiful, bizarre designs to steal from and the modern world is full of materials - no excuse!

(Favourites for everyone but no best answer - they are all worthy, they are all worthy)
posted by Devonian at 6:17 AM on February 10, 2016

Some of the practices of the netsuke crowd may be of interest as well.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:32 AM on February 11, 2016

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