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Matt Dickinson Q&A

Course leader in Computer Aided Engineering

What inspired you to create this Iron Man arm?

“There are a few things to consider, firstly that the perception is that prosthetics is just like a big old rubber arm. This arm focuses on the idea of using electrical signals from your body to drive something or make something work. The arm I’ve created has an internal 3D printer skeleton, the external is made of foam which has been hardened up and paint sprayed before I’ve gone to town on it with a two-pence piece to give it that look of going into battle.

Matt Dickinson

“The one true thing that really inspired me about this though is that it’s a project that I actually give to schools. Don’t get me wrong there are things wrong with it, there are problems with any sort of design but it’s important for me to be able to talk to anybody and show that this so-called 'super-advanced' research topic is really simple when you look at the basic principles.

“If somebody explains to you the basics of what they are trying to go, you understand it so much more. Literally all that people creating prosthetics are trying to do, it replicate the human hand. We give all the code away for free for anyone that wants to have a go at this.”

Explain the whole process that you go through in order to create this arm

“I studied on the Computer Aided Engineering course at UCLan and it was always about proof of concept. It was always about designing something. I started off with an image which, for example, would be an image of Robert Downey Jr wearing the actual arm. You can also find out on google for example how tall Robert Downey Jr is, you can figure out the length of his arm and the size of his hand.

“What you do from there is look at the fingers and measure across each joint and then all you do is you build up this specific areas on the appropriate software. I use a technique called surface modelling. I then create a thickness to the arm and I can reproduce it in any state or form. This isn’t the only arm that I have. I recently completed a version of the Iron Man prime armour from Infinity War and that one is wearable. I’ve also produced part of the Hulkbuster arm using the same technology.

“This arm I have here today is controlled by a micro-controller called Arduino Uno. If you attached the band around your arm, it can be set up to detect the muscle changes in your arm so it can tell when your arm is loose or tight. For example, when you make a fist, the arm will change its position.”

In terms of the work that students will produce on your course, how advanced is this kind of thing compared to the work that students will be expected to produce?

"What students need to think about is if they are going to design something new is decide how functional it is and how achievable it is to create.

“I will always encourage my students to prototype because there is a big myth that prototyping is something that isn’t needed to be done. It is 100% something that is needed. More recently, we have added a bit more of AI into the third year.

“What is important to me is that my students and graduates can go to a robotics engineer or expert and be able to have a communicating boundary. What my guys will be able to do is understand microcontrollers and how they work. For example, if you look at this arm, they will be able to design the whole arm and get the microcontroller to work."

Matt Dickinson

How proud are you of the kind of things you’ve produced such as this Iron Man arm?

“To be honest, it’s a really odd experience. One of my friends who is now the director of Marketing, Jo Heaton, we originally started doing Comic Book science as a one-off. At first we actually did it as a bit of show filler. I then took over doing this outreach programme after which I started to build stuff and people were telling me “it’s amazing.” The trouble is when you build something yourself and you know how it works, you actually get less impressed.

“I try to write blogs to explain how I put these things together because one of my favourite quotes is Einstein’s quote that “If you can’t explain something to a six year old you can’t understand it clearly yourself.” That principle is what my entire teaching career is about and what the outreach programme is about.

Matt Dickinson

“One of my proudest moments was when I was doing quantum levitation. There a six year old and I was trying to teach her about quantum tunnelling. We got kids to form the shapes of different atomic structures where is a gap between each atom that they can pass in-between. The kids were amazed by how simple it was and that was a particularly proud moment.

We’ve also had a few disasters to be honest. We had one this year with a replica I created of a Doctor Octavius tentacle. It functions through a continuum structure where it bolts together and you can extend the lengths. You’ve got cables that travel down the sides of it and you’ve got to have the wires tightened slightly above the contact point of that ball joint. At a talk this year, we ran the ball joint so it went up and everyone was amazed but then it came down and all the stress went on to a ball joint and it snapped seven segments.”

For anybody that reads this or sees these pictures, there are legal processes behind it aren’t there?

“I made contact with Marvel before making these things and made agreements with them. The arrangement is that I don’t make any money from it and that I don’t use any official stuff. As I said before, anything I do, I give it away for free. They own the images to everything that they produce. They’re open to fan base structures so you can write about Marvel characters but you cannot make any money from it.”

How do you use your experience to help students fulfil their potential?

“When I first started teaching I was very nervous, but then I met Jo Heaton and we started doing the outright programme. I discovered through this that I could stand in front of two-hundred kids and that they would be the most brutal, they would make you work to win their attention over. I normally use these small techniques to engage people and I use them in my classes because I’m passionate about what I do. I love this job. I love everything about it.”

03 October 2018