Geek Speak: Helen Platt, Army of Evil Robots
Helen “Highwater” Platt jokingly refers to herself as an “evil robot overlord”. But the 40-year-old graphic designer and multimedia artist, who was born in Ince, England, is not out to destroy the world, just to make cool stuff.
Platt and her engineer husband, Derek Anderson, are behind the collaborative project Army of Evil Robots. Their “army” includes a 3-D printer and two computer numerical control cutting machines, which they use to make bookcases, clocks, signs, and other things.
This Saturday and Sunday (June 23 and 24), Platt and Anderson will participate in the 2012 Vancouver Mini Maker Faire at the PNE Forum. The DIY-focused festival’s website describes it as a “family-friendly showcase of invention, creativity, and resourcefulness”. Platt and Anderson were also among the makers at last year’s Mini Maker Faire at the Great Northern Way Campus.
The Georgia Straight reached Platt by phone at her home office in Abbotsford.
What is the goal of Army of Evil Robots?
Besides world domination, which I think is generally understood to be the overarching goal for most evil robot overlords—which is what we call ourselves—I think we just want to continue to expand at our robots, our machines, and our workshop, and building more cool, awesome projects.
What robots do you have in your army?
Well, we have currently two CNCs. One is a smaller one that cuts a four inch by six inch cutting area. We have larger one which cuts a four and a half foot by four and a half foot cutting area. We also have a 3-D printer. A 3-D printer is basically a machine that prints layer upon layer of heated plastic to form 3-D objects. The 3-D printer is more of an additive method of creating 3-D objects. CNC stands for computer numerical control cutting tool, which is a subtractive method. It actually cuts material away.
Both of them work almost the same. You draw a design for a 3-D object on your computer and send it to the machine, and they build it for you while we kind of sit around in comfy chairs watching the machines do all the hard work. So the reason we call it Army of Evil Robots is it’s just a fun name to get people interested in our equipment and our machines and what we’re doing. A robot can be defined as a machine that can follow programmed commands and that’s able to do a complex series of actions automatically, which is what our machines do.
How do you tell a 3-D printer or a CNC machine to make a sign?
Generally, our products start in a traditional way, with just a pencil and a piece of paper. So you draw the design you want, the plans and measurements, and all of that. Usually, what I do is scan the sketch, load it into vector software, and do a vector trace. So it starts off as a 2-D vector drawing. Very often I’ll draw it in several different views and develop the idea in that stage a little bit more.
Then what we do is export drawing files, which we can then load into 3-D programs, where we create the cutting paths and define the depth of cutting or building that you would do in 3-D printing. Then you push the Go button, and it does it. It magically creates what started off as a pencil sketch. It’s suddenly a real thing in front of your eyes.
What are some of things that you’d like to make with your 3-D printer and CNCs?
We’ve been making different clock projects—sort of getting bigger and bolder with each one. The next one we’re planning is a full-height grandfather clock, including the actual mechanism, that will all be cut using both our CNCs. The next robots that we’re planing on building—one is a four foot by four foot by four foot powder-bed printer, which will be capable of printing large architectural components. Obviously, those will figure greatly in our future projects as well. Increasing the size of our CNC—right now, like I said, it’s a four and a half foot by four and a half foot machine. We want to increase the size to eight feet long and add an axis. Right now, it’s a three-axis machine so it can carve basically in relief. We want to add another so it can create fully three-dimensional forms. So those are some upcoming projects that hopefully you’ll see at next year’s Maker Faire. That might be a little ambitious, but we’ll see.
What draws you to participate in the Vancouver Mini Maker Faire?
Lots of things. The thing that I think is really cool about Maker Faire is that it puts creativity and ingenuity back within reach. Creative thought is something that everybody is capable of. But sometimes it’s really good to be inspired and reminded by others. Maker Faire is really good for that. You see a lot of amazing ideas and emerging technologies and upcoming trends that sometimes no one has heard of yet—really brand-new, cutting-edge ideas—as well as just crazy, imaginative things. You’ll find everything from 3-D printing to ninja yarn-bombing to a flame-throwing pipe organ—everything imaginable and more. I think that basically sums up why we instantly wanted to be involved as soon as we heard that Vancouver was holding a Maker Faire last year.
What tips might you have for other makers?
I think the biggest excuse that people use for not being creative and not making is not having space for it. I also think one of the biggest impedances to creativity and making is that when people do make space they shove it into the darkest corner they can find in their home. My advice is don’t do that. If you don’t have space, turn your dining room into a workshop and eat on your lap in the living room. Make space in the centre of your room, because then it will become important to you and you will make the time for it. I think that would be my key piece of advice: put it right in the middle of your life and right in the middle of your house.