Mar 7, 2018 | By Tess

In the maker community, UK-based Matt Denton is probably best known for his Mantis Hacks Youtube channel and giant 3D printed LEGO projects. Denton, as readers may recall, 3D printed a LEGO Go-Kart as well as a LEGO Forklift that were almost big enough for his seven-year-old nephew to ride.

What Mantis Hacks fans might not know is that Denton also has a prolific professional career in the film and TV industry. Micromagic Systems, founded by Denton in 1999, has supplied robotics and animatronics to movies like Prometheus, the Harry Potter films, and the recent Star Wars installments.

Matt Denton with director J.J. Abrams & BB-8

We recently got the chance to talk to Denton about Micromagic Systems, 3D printed LEGO builds, his ongoing Mantis Hexapod project, and more.

3Ders: As founder of Micromagic Systems, you must have extensive experience with all types of manufacturing, design, and robotics technologies. I even read that your company worked on some of the Harry Potter films! Can you tell us a bit about your work? 

Matt Denton: Yes, I've been using all manner of manufacturing technologies over the years. In fact, on Harry Potter I was the envy of my colleagues as I had a 3-axis CNC router with a 600 x 700 mm bed. I still have the machine—it's a great piece of kit and still gets regular use! The router transformed the way me and my colleagues designed and built animatronics, much like 3D printing is transforming design and engineering now. On the Harry Potter films I worked as part of the Creature FX team, specializing in the electronics control systems.

3Ders: When did you first start integrating 3D printing technology into your work?

Matt Denton: I suppose I'm relatively new to 3D printing based on how long it's been around now. Some of my colleagues had 3D printers at work and I had been watching the technology progress for some time, so it was very much on my radar. Then in 2015 I met James Bruton [of XRobots] who introduced me to the Lulzbot 3D printer range. James very kindly lent me one of his very early printers, an A0-101, and once I had it up and running I literally didn't stop printing!

At the time, I was designing a half-scale, fully working BB-8 (partly for fun and partly to test new design ideas for the full sized version). I had already finished much of the CAD work and as soon as James lent me the printer I started churning parts out. Of course, I redesigned many of the parts once I got my head around what works best with 3D printing techniques.

I think I had the A0-101 printer for about a month before I placed an order for my LulzBot TAZ 5. I now have a couple of TAZ 6s to compliment the TAZ 5 and use them regularly at work for rapid prototyping. Sometimes, I will also farm out to a printing service such as Shapeways, but it's so convenient having a 3D printer in the workshop when I can test a design and correct any issues fast, especially because film deadlines are usually fairly tight.

3Ders: What led you to start making Mantis Hacks videos for your 3D printing projects?

Matt Denton: I've had my YouTube channel since 2006, but it mainly consisted of my Hexapod Robot project—hexapods being another passion of mine for many years! After meeting James Bruton and hanging out with him, I thought I should start posting videos up to my channel again. I started on a large engineering project in which I added some large hydraulic grippers to the front of the Mantis walking machine, hence the name “Mantis Hacks.”

The idea was that in the process of making the videos, I would teach myself to weld and show people how to control hydraulic actuators with an Arduino. This was a fun project, but wasn't getting many views. Actually, it’s yet to be finished but I will go back to it at some point.

When I spotted James' giant Lego skateboard project, I thought it would be really cool to take a LEGO Technic kit and scale it up. At first the idea was to make a LEGO Go-Kart big enough for my seven-year-old nephew to sit in. So I set about finding a LEGO Go-Kart with minimal parts. I found the 1972 kit, but quickly realized that to scale it big enough for my nephew it would need to be 10x bigger. Then I thought why not just make it as big as my TAZ 5 3D printer can handle, which turned out to be 5x bigger…and so the new Giant LEGO Mantis Hacks videos were born.

3Ders: Can you describe the process involved in designing and printing your LEGO makes?

Matt Denton: The giant LEGO projects do take some time to complete. When I started the Go-Kart, I remember thinking I'd just try printing a couple of bricks to see how long they took. I quickly started to find ways of speeding things up. For example, the bricks were so large that detail was not such an issue, so I increased the layer height to 0.4 mm which made a big difference in print time. Anyway, before long I had half the kit printed (mostly the easy parts) so I thought I may as well continue and see how it turns out. 

It turned out so well I had to make a video about it and decided to include my nephew with a giant-sized vs. normal-sized build challenge. It’s still my favorite video of the series. Of course, no sooner had I finished the Go-Kart and I was thinking about a bigger kit…the LEGO forklift had over twice as many parts, but I had a new TAZ 6 printer which was going to take some of the load.

3Ders: Was LEGO your go-to toy as a kid?

Matt Denton: LEGO was hugely influential in my life—I used to play with it all the time. I would often go out for the day with my parents and see something like a digger or a crane, then I'd start thinking about how I could build it out of the LEGO I had. I would always be really keen to get home so I could start my build! So I would say LEGO has nourished my creative side and helped in understanding basic engineering principles, particularly when LEGO Technic came out. My first Technic kit was the 850 Forklift—I was blown away by the rack and pinion steering!

3Ders: Is your nephew who features in your videos going to take up the mantle? Does he have a future in 3D printing ahead of him?

Matt Denton: Well, I hope what I'm doing is encouraging him to do just that. Most of the presents he gets from me are LEGO-based (which he does ask for), however he currently doesn't have access to a 3D printer at home. His parents are quite keen to get one in the house though; they are both pretty creative people and see the potential. As soon as my nephew shows any interest in designing or printing something, I'll be lending him a printer for sure!

Matt Denton with his seven-year-old nephew Ruben and the 3D printed LEGO Forklift

3Ders: You seem amazingly patient in your recent video testing out the R/C LEGO Go-Kart despite how many times it breaks. Are you used to the process of trial and error—as a maker and in your career?

Matt Denton: That's quite funny because I'm not known for my patience! The thing with the R/C Go-Kart is that I really didn't want to use glue. I try not to use glue on any of my large LEGO kits as I want to be able to take them apart and maybe mix-n-match the kits. So when I came to make the R/C video I knew that things were likely to go wrong, especially as the Go-Kart really wasn't deigned to take the kind of loads I was putting it through. It was supposed to be a bit of fun, and fixing it as it broke was half of that fun…I think!

When I'm designing something it's mostly about trial and error. Now with 3D printing, I can print one out take a look and see if it works, if it doesn't try again. This way of designing really suits me. There are times where I'll sit and CAD something up or write software for weeks on end, but then you just have to start making something and 3D printers are great for that.

3Ders: Are you still working on the Mantis hexapod robot project?

Matt Denton: The Mantis always needs some fixing or upgrading, and I'd love to spend more time on it. However, it's a big beast to work on and currently I don't have a workshop that I can use to make repairs of modifications. This is part of the reason I stopped the Mantis Gripper videos, just because I was running out of space in my small shed, and I was getting to the stage of adding the gripper to the Mantis. I still really want to do this, but it does take some time and currently I'm in the middle of another giant LEGO print!

3Ders: Do you have any tips for novice makers who are attempting to either design new functional models or scale up existing products like you have?

Matt Denton: If you have a 3D printer I think the best way to learn is just to start 3D printing things, things that you have designed—try not to get stuck just downloading baby Groots and printing them out. Although fun at first, it’s much more satisfying to design some kind of gizmo in CAD and then see your 3D printer making it for you. Then you get to put it together and see it work—or find out that it doesn't and try again! 

Also, I think there is something fundamentally satisfying about scaling up a well-known product to giant scale. It's instantly gratifying holding a giant LEGO brick, like you're part of the Borrowers clan.

3Ders: Finally, do you have any future projects lined up for your Mantis Hacks series or with Micromagic Systems?

Matt Denton: I have one or two more LEGO projects, then I'm going to have a think about what to do next. After all, I'm going to run out of room for my giant LEGO soon! (I did have a museum interested in purchasing the forklift but we have yet to reach a deal.)

I do also feel like I need to make a hexapod with 3D printed parts at some point; my hexapods would have been very different had I had had a 3D printer back in the day!

Finally, I can't say much about what I'm doing for my work right now other than it's still based in a galaxy far far away, as it has been for the last five years!

(Images: Matt Denton)

Be sure to tune in next week for our next Maker Profile.



Posted in Interviews



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