SACRAMENTO, Calif. - While Spencer Composites Corp. closes its doors at the end of the day, its sheet metal machines are working overtime. But the company isn’t catching up on last-minute work orders -- it’s helping to create robot parts that would make any sci-fi fan think they have gone to geek heaven. Or ended up on a Jawa sandcrawler.
If you understand that last sentence, then you’ll probably love what this Sacramento, Calif., company is doing.
Spencer Composites, which fabricates products for numerous industries, helps Totally Wired Droids, a member of the R2 Builders Club. The club is an international group of “Star Wars” fans who work together to help other members create their dream of building their own R2D2, the short, stocky and squawky sidekick robot from the “Star Wars” films.
Waterjet cutting machines and computer-numeric-controlled mills are just some of the sheet metal machines that Spencer has on hand to help make the various parts needed to build an R2D2. Need a foot for your R2? How about an ankle cylinder or a shoulder horseshoe? If you need it for your robot, Totally Wired Droids can make it.
A new hopeMike Hayes, the owner of a security and electrical company, and the co-founder of Totally Wired Droids, says that the R2 Builders Club started in 2000 and immediately “it just caught like wildfire.”
There are 10,000 members in the group worldwide, including members in China, the United Kingdom and Australia. There is no cost to join the group; just a love for “Star Wars” and the desire to help others build their own Droids.
Most of the people in the group do not have backgrounds in sheet metal or HVAC work; they’re just “basic people with a dream” to build their own robots, says Scott Trauthen, the marketing “czar” for Totally Wired Droids who volunteers his time to promote the company.
“People are literally building them (robots) out of their homes,” he says.
Trauthen has seen robots made out of materials including wood and plastic. He says every member works with the materials they are most comfortable with and designs each project to the sophistication level they want.
For Hayes, the robot he built has almost all the features of one you might find in “Attack of the Clones.” His Droid is made of aluminum with a sheet metal skin. It also has mechanical components inside that allow Hayes to control it remotely. It can glide around the room; its dome head swivels 360 degrees; it lights up and it even makes all of the beeps and blips that R2D2 is known to chirp out. And although Hayes has been working on his Droid for three years, he’s always finding new things to add to it.
Most members of the R2 Builders Club want something different for their unit. For example, Hayes says that one member wanted advice on installing a “charge arm,” or electric shocker, that would come out of the front of the R2 unit. Some may remember R2D2 using his shock arm in 1983’s “Return of the Jedi” when Princess Leia was held captive on Jabba the Hutt’s barge.
Another member of the group asked Hayes if he could manufacture a drink tray that could be fitted to his R2 unit to serve drinks. With all of these specific requests from club members, Totally Wired Droids is giving members hope that they can make their Droids as close to the film versions as possible.
“There’s not really a kit where you can build your own (R2D2),” says Trauthen.
That’s where Spencer Composites Corp. comes into the galactic empire.
Like R2D2 and C3PO
Zack Spencer, the engineering manager for Spencer Composites, met Hayes and joined the R2 club in 2007. Spencer was already using his fabrication expertise for his own artwork, which features sculptures made out of metals such as steel and iron ore.
But besides metal fabrication, Spencer has always loved “Star Wars.” Like many boys growing up the late 1970s and early 1980s, Spencer was obsessed with George Lucas’ science fiction trilogy.
When he was a child, Spencer had a VCR and owned just six movies. Three of those movies were the original “Star Wars” films - “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” The other videos were Indiana Jones films. Spencer says one of those six movies were on every day when he was growing up.
Spencer, now 35, still obsesses about “Star Wars.” Before he was approached by Hayes to help with his robots, he was fabricating his own creations. One was the iconic metal bikini worn by a 26-year-old Carrie Fisher in “Return of the Jedi.” Spencer says that he saw several “Star Wars” fans creating the bikini for costumes, but none were made out of metal.
“I can do this out of metal,” he said he thought.
And he did. He’s also done numerous other recreations of memorabilia from “Star Wars” and other sci-fi movies.
So when Hayes approached Spencer about fabricating R2D2 parts, he says it “sounded like fun (and) something I want to do.”
The team of Hayes, Trauthen, Spencer, and Spencer’s wife Kris, handle a lot of duties at the R2 Builders Club. Kris Spencer does all of the shipping and receiving work for Totally Wired Droids. She also helps Trauthen when it’s time to show off their creations at WonderCon.
As Trauthen puts it, the work they do is “truly an endeavor of love.” That is because Totally Wired Droids does not profit from the parts it makes for the R2 group. The R2 Builders Club has the blessing of “Star Wars” creator George Lucas. However, according to Trauthen, Lucas says that members of the group can’t build parts for profit, which also means they can’t sell them on eBay.
To get parts from Totally Wired, a person must be a member of the builders group. When a member wants a part, they make it and only charge for materials.
Better than buying from a JawaSpencer and his team have all of the equipment necessary in the Spencer Composites shop to fabricate any piece needed for an R2D2.
He saves all of the scrap aluminum that his company has left over from other projects. Scrap is then formed into the raw pieces for the R2 unit using a waterjet cutter.
Spencer says it usually takes about 30 minutes for the machine to cut the pieces. From there, the pieces are welded together. It could take about a day to weld them, depending on how intricate they are.
Next, Spencer uses SolidWorks software to draw each part. These drawings contain where each groove and detail needs to be cut into the Droid part. Once the parameters are set in SolidWorks, the welded aluminum piece is placed in a CNC cutting machine. SolidWorks transmits the data to the CNC machine and it begins forming the part. From there, the parts are sharpened and polished until they look like an exact replica.
While Totally Wired Droids does not profit from the parts it creates, the group still takes pride in how each pieces looks when it is finished. Spencer says that some members will spend up to $20,000 to create their Droid, which is why “I want professional looking things in here,” he says.
Spencer Composites also has several other machines that can help create the R2 parts. The company just started using a spin-forming machine. This large piece of equipment can be used to form R2D2’s domed head.
“It’s a giant machine for a small part,” Spencer says.
The company also has the capability to paint the Droids if necessary. But Hayes isn’t ready for that. He says that the shiny aluminum on his R2 unit looks too good and “I can’t bring myself to paint him.”
Of all the members of the R2 Builders Club, Totally Wired is one of only 10 members that are actually creating parts for other members, Hayes says. It is also one of the only groups making the parts out of aluminum.
Beyond CoruscantWhile Hayes has a fully functioning R2D2, Spencer is still working on his. That’s because Spencer has been too busy creating parts for other builders. He’s also been trying his hand at other sci-fi projects.
For example, Totally Wired Droids may soon start building another well-known robot. The team has started fabricating pieces for B9 from TV’s “Lost in Space,” known for his catchphrase “Danger, Will Robinson - Danger!” The team has already fabricated his claw hand and his face, which is protected behind his glass head.
But in the meantime, R2D2 is the robot that is getting the most attention with Totally Wired Droids.
“He’s an iconic figure,” says Trauthen. He also calls R2D2 the “best booth babe.”
When Totally Wired brings their R2D2 to WonderCon “people come running,” says Hayes. And it’s not just children. People in their 30s and 40s want to see the Droid they all grew up with.
“ ‘Stars Wars’ is never going away,” Spencer says. “We grew up with it and we can pass it to our kids.”
Besides WonderCon, Totally Wired has taken its R2 unit to “Star Wars Day” at a San Francisco Giants ballgame. He’s even been the ring bearer at a “Star Wars” fan’s wedding.
But Hayes says his goal is to take his R2D2 to children’s charities such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The joy that comes across a kid’s face makes all the fabrication worth it for Totally Wired Droids.
“There is nothing better than to see an R2 working and see someone’s grin light up,” Hayes says.
For more information on Totally Wired Droids, visitwww.scopious.net/totallywireddroids.
For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or email email@example.com.