Composites as costume: Manga masterpieces

Sophisticated design meets composite materials and manufacturing in cosplay application.

Composite materials have a tendency to show up in unexpected — and sometimes surprising — applications when one steps outside of the typical design space of aerospace, marine, architectural or industrial markets. In fact, they have been embraced by designers and role-playing game cosplayers (short for costumed role players), performance artists who recreate and wear the trappings of their favorite characters in video games, comic books, graphic novels and, especially, manga and anime (comics and animated videos, respectively, created in artistic styles that originated in Japan).

Cosplayers compete for prizes and recognition at conventions that cater to fans of same, including Comic-Con, Katsucon and Otakon. The fantasy recreations require considerable design and execution skill, as well as a range of materials. Spencer Composites Corp.’s (Sacramento, Calif.) Zack Spencer, a composites engineer and cofounder of the Sacramento-based collaborative builder’s group Mantium Industries Inc., recently helped coordinate a Mantium-supported costume design project for the Katsucon anime conference in early 2012.

“This was a huge learning experience,” says Mantium member Meagan Marie, a well-known cosplayer and former editor at Game Informer magazine, who works in the video gaming industry and writes a popular gaming blog. Marie and fellow cosplayer Linda Le, better known as Vampy, a cosplay veteran famous for her anime costuming skills and appearances, teamed with Spencer and others within Mantium to design and fabricate the costume elements of the characters Teresa and Clare from the manga Claymore.


   
Bringing characters to life

“I’ve always been a big fan of comic books and video games, and started going to conventions about five years ago,” says Marie, noting that “the cosplay community is a very serious and committed group of people.” She and Le were invited guests at the 2012 Katsucon event in Washington, D.C. The pair selected the Claymore characters because they both liked the story line and thought the costumes would be unique. In conversations with Spencer, they determined that composites would be the best option for the costumes’ external armor because the lightweight elements would be more comfortable yet durable enough to pack and transport to the show. And, given the design freedom of composites, they would also provide the best way to achieve a “screen-accurate” design.

The process began with the purchase of a Claymore action figure, approximately 12-inches/305-mm high. Spencer Composites’ three-dimensional laser scanner was employed to scan the figure in detail, and the data were converted to a 3-D model using SolidWorks software from Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp. (Waltham, Mass.). The composite elements were to include the shoulder armor and attached backpack with wings, the “petals” or armor pieces that form a skirt, and the shafts of each character’s massive claymore sword, modeled after the long two-handed 17th Century Scottish broadsword of the same name, and from which the manga takes its title. Using the SolidWorks program, each element was modeled and drafted in three dimensions and scaled dimensionally to fit the two women. Then the information was converted to CAMWorks, a program within SolidWorks, that automatically transforms the model shape information into CNC machine code for machining the part molds.

The group decided to filament wind the sword handles in carbon fiber and chose carbon/epoxy prepreg for the shoulder and backpack pieces. To accommodate a flowing cape, the backpack’s wings were designed in two pieces, which would be joined with metal fasteners so the fabric could be held in place.

The petals were a challenge. In order to achieve a natural drape and a skirt-like look, similar to the comic’s design, the petals had to have some flexibility. To achieve this, the Mantium team opted for an innovative Spencer-patented poly-dicyclopentodiene (p-DCPD) resin, an engineered low-viscosity thermoset that processes easily but, when cured, offers properties similar to a thermoplastic, including high elongation and “give.” Because of its low initial viscosity, the resin also could deliver the high-quality surface finish and reproduce the level of detail that Marie and Le wanted. Two sets of petal molds were required to accommodate the height difference between Marie and Le. Each set required three molds to create the different petal shapes that make up the skirt.

The CAMWorks files were input to Spencer’s CNC milling machine, manufactured by Cincinnati Milacron (now Milacron LLC, Cincinnati, Ohio), and the female molds for the shoulder pieces, backpacks, wings and petals were machined from flat billet aluminum over the course of several weeks. Materials selected for the shoulder armor and backpack pieces included a 2x2 woven twill (NB301) 3K prepreg fabric supplied by Newport Adhesives and Composites Inc. (Irvine, Calif.). Material for the filament-wound shafts was 34-700 12K carbon tow, supplied by Grafil Inc. (Sacramento, Calif.), wet out with an epoxy resin from Momentive (formerly Hexion, Columbus, Ohio) that was formulated with a catalyst from Lindau Chemicals Inc. (Columbia, S.C.).



More than meets the eye

When the tooling was complete, the Mantium team began the process of laying up the costume parts. With virtually no composites experience, Marie and Le learned on the fly with instruction from Spencer and other team members. The first parts made were the shoulder armor pieces, consisting of two nesting hemispheres on each shoulder. As with the petals, two sets of tools were created, one for each woman. The mold surfaces were prepared with Release All mold release supplied by Airtech International Inc. (Huntington Beach, Calif.).

Because of the double-curved hemispherical shape, layup was tricky. The four plies of prepreg required considerable cutting, darting and overlapping to get them into the molds. A similar layup process was repeated for the backpack and backpack wings, again using darting and cutting to correctly shape the material to the complex mold contours. The layups were vacuum bagged, a vacuum was pulled to evacuate air and provide consolidation and the parts were oven-cured at 250°F/121°C, in accordance with the material specifications.

The petal skirt pieces were created by first cutting stainless steel wire mesh to the approximate mold shape, then laying the mesh in the mold cavities, which were prepared with a proprietary Spencer-developed mold release that is chemically compatible with the p-DCPD resin. After mixing the resin, the liquid was simply poured into the molds. The parts were processed by waiting overnight for the cure to progress. “The embedded wire mesh enabled us to shape the petals, after heating them up in an oven, so that they would hang properly during wearing,” says Marie.

Spencer, meanwhile, created the two sword shafts, approximately 4 ft/1.2m in length and 1.5 inches/38 mm in diameter, by winding a single carbon fiber tube on a 1-inch/25-mm steel mandrel on the company’s 2-axis, single-spindle winding machine and cutting the wound shaft in half. The handle parts were clearcoated to give them a smooth finish. Then they were fitted with decorative aluminum pieces, also CNC-machined by Spencer, to replicate the Claymore design. The massive sword blades were CNC-machined from aluminum slabs and engraved with the appropriate insignia for the characters. Spencer notes that the swords were quite lethal. “We tried them out on watermelons, just to see what would happen,” he reports, quipping, “We decided we’d better file down the edges so that Meagan and Linda wouldn’t get hurt during the convention.”

After the composite parts were cured and demolded, the tedious process of hand sanding, fairing and painting began. After careful sanding, a fairing compound was applied to eliminate the print-through caused by the fabric prepreg. After the compound was cured, a second sanding was required to make the parts as smooth as possible for painting. An automotive-grade paint was applied to the parts for a Class A finish.

Marie and Le then set to work to assemble the parts into the finished costumes. The petal shaping was followed by riveting the pieces to belts that would be hidden under bodysuits sewn by Le. The wings were attached to the backpacks and white fabric was secured to the wings, then metallic links were fashioned to secure the shoulder armor in front. Balance issues, which caused the backpacks to slip downward, were solved, and aluminum leglets and wrist pieces were fabricated as final touches. Le used her wig cutting skills to create the characters’ hairstyles.

The project was capped by Marie and Le’s attendance at Katsucon 2012, where their costumes were featured in videos and professional still photos. “It was really satisfying to merge composites engineering with artistry in this project. It was the most intensive and complicated costume project that Linda and I have ever worked on,” concludes Marie. The Mantium collaborative, in addition to costumes, has embarked on other novel projects involving composites, including sculpture and a composite reproduction of the R2-D2 robot of Star Wars fame, a project so true to the movie prop that it has received many positive responses from members of the R2-D2 Builders Club (www.astromech.net). Indeed, the Claymore project has demonstrated the endless versatility of composite materials in an almost unlimited range of markets — even comic character costumes.

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