Comic Book Engineering Breaks into Real Life with The Hacksmith
Have you ever watched a movie like The Avengers and thought to yourself, “how could that be done in the real world,” only to quickly dismiss your internal question as unrealistic fantasy?
Or, have you ever watched Star Wars and pondered the real technology that might be required to make an actual lightsaber?
James Hobson, also known as The Hacksmith, started his career as an engineer after graduating in 2012 with a Bachelor of Engineering in Mechanical Systems Engineering from Conestoga College in Ontario, Canada.
“The day after my last exam I started working for a company called Athena Automation, where I helped design the base weldments for injection molding machines,” Hobson explains. “I learned a lot at that job in sheet metal design, hydraulics, pneumatics and preparing proper engineering drawings for manufacturing. Within a year, I felt I had learned all I could and moved back to my hometown to work for Christie Digital Systems, where I helped design movie theater projectors.”
Becoming a Non-Traditional Engineer (Is an Understatement)
While working for Christie Digital Systems, Hobson took advantage of his time in their large rapid prototyping lab and learned about manufacturing more complicated parts and components. He relished his experience with the company, but knew his passion was more than average engineering.
“I signed up for YouTube’s partner program a few weeks before I graduated,” he explains. “At that point, it was just a kind of pipe dream: ‘Darn, it would be cool to make money off of the Internet….’ But I kept working on it, and when I saw an opportunity, I took it.”
(Image courtesy of The Hacksmith.)
Hobson was putting in a typical 40-hour workweek with his employer and then putting in another 40 hours during nights and weekends. “I knew something had to change.” After trying to arrange a part-time contract that didn’t pan out, he handed in his resignation and took to YouTube full-time. “I’m glad it worked out that way because if I didn’t give YouTube my 110 percent, I might not have made it as far as I have,” Hobson says.
“I make this joke a lot… Most engineers design brackets full-time. Brackets to hold different parts. Brackets to hold assemblies together. Enclosures to hold those assemblies,” he continues. “Ultimately, unless you’re the lead engineer responsible for a product, you’re just making brackets! I didn’t want to make brackets anymore. I wanted to make full-out working prototypes, week after week. Normally engineering is slow. R&D skunkworks is fast and exciting! I needed to be the one to come up with the ideas.”
Now, Hobson is the star of a YouTube channel with nearly 11 million subscribers, averaging millions of views on every video, as he designs, prototypes and destroys an array of fictional tools and devices by bringing them to life.
(Image courtesy of The Hacksmith.)
Designing Fictional Tech Isn’t Simple
There are justifiable apprehensions to creating a real-life Iron Man suit and a reason that a working lightsaber hasn’t been tackled by Lockheed Martin. Fantasy technology is often impractical, challenging and dangerous… and that’s if the tech is even remotely based in reality.
“I’d say the biggest challenge with any fictional technology is when the writer doesn’t have a good understanding of real-world physics, Hobson explains. “To quote Spiderman referring to Captain America’s shield, ‘That thing doesn’t obey the laws of physics at all!’ I absolutely love science fiction titles where there’s at least a basic understanding of science.”
Movie magic isn’t always feasible in the real world, even if we were centuries in the future—but sometimes it is. “I absolutely love the Expanse series, because a lot of their ideas of the future are grounded in science, and actually make sense!” Hobson says.
When building something that has a basis in real science, he says that “It’s a real treat, in that case. For every other case, we just have to do our best—and usually, that means having a corded power supply, since, in comics, small power modules seem to be readily available!”
One of The Hacksmith’s earliest projects was developing metal Wolverine claws, based on the character from Marvel Comics. This exposed him to the possibilities of creating fictional ideas from comics, movies and video games and making real, working prototypes.
Hobson defines his team’s design process as often simpler than a traditional engineering process. “We start with the idea or the concept from the movie, game, comic, whatever. We break it down to its core ‘abilities’ and then we look for existing tech that is similar. When we find something similar, then it becomes a question of, well how would we go about modifying or ‘hacking’ this, to turn it into the piece of fictional technology?”
That’s when Hobson and his team really start their design phase. “We focus on how it’s going to work in practicality, the aesthetic, and any other remaining unknowns that might require a bit of R&D testing to confirm. It’s that simple,” he says with a smile.
More often than not, the first prototype they produce is what ends up being the project in their videos. Multiple iterations of the same prototype really are not a thing in the world of The Hacksmith. If they find themselves in a situation where their project requires a lot of design and less manufacturing, they will develop a prototype before filming. “This is probably the better way to do it but for some things, the first prototype is all we’ve got!”
Even The Hacksmith Has Typical Engineering Challenges
Hobson explains that one of their most challenging projects to date with building a half-scale Cybertruck—channeling Elon Musk to build a working replica of Tesla’s new truck.
“The Half Scale Cybertruck was a pretty good test of our abilities here at Hacksmith Industries. We initially wanted to build one the size of a GoKart — and to do it in a week. That didn’t happen,” Hobson shares.
The project ended up being the size of a golf cart, and then the Hacksmith team began to encounter feature-creep, “adding more features here and there. In the end it took us around five to six weeks to fully build it, but it was totally worth it. I think one of the hardest parts of making our projects is deciding where to stop. There are always more features to be added, but we always have to ask ourselves, what is the minimum viable product?”
Typical engineering challenges, even when making fantasy tech, require real-life engineering solutions. The Hacksmith crew uses an array of manufacturing equipment—everything from a plasma table to CNC machines to welders, and anything else you might stumble upon in an engineer’s shop.
And, because Hobson is a traditionally educated engineer, they use SOLIDWORKS to do all of their design. “We grew up with [SOLIDWORKS], we worked in the industry with it… going on 14 years of experience now. Hard to teach an old dog new tricks! It really does enable us to make some awesome stuff.”
Hobson says that they are excited to challenge themselves with more design and to do more big projects like the Cybertruck in the future.
(Image courtesy of The Hacksmith.)
Sci-Fi Ideas Actually Made Real
One of The Hacksmith’s most celebrated projects is creating a lightsaber. While it isn’t exactly what the Star Wars franchise depicts, it is pretty close—and in all actuality, it matches what franchise lore defines as a proto-saber. This is due to the powercell challenges mentioned previously.
Regardless, Hobson managed to make a retractable, 4,000° plasma lightsaber. It even surprised the Hacksmith Industries team with its capabilities. “Our lightsaber ended up being pretty damn functional, which made the test video super fun,” he shares.
“My goal is to get all our future projects to the point where they just work, where anyone could pick them up and make them do what they’re supposed to do,” Hobson says. “But a lot of our stuff is just prototypes, so it’s not always possible.”
Hobson and the Hacksmith Industries team has grown quite a bit since their early projects seven years ago. As they look forward, they are hoping to do bigger and bigger projects. In true comic book fashion, he explains, “We’re in the process of looking for a multi-acre commercial property with room for dozens of buildings. My plan? To create Hacksmith Industries Research Campus. I have a whole Master Plan about how we’re going to get there…”
For real-world product development with SOLIDWORKS, check out Developing Better Products in the Cloud.