It takes a lot to build a to-scale monster truck costume. Late hours, technical expertise, and, in the case of the SOLIDWORKS Magic Wheelchair build, a knowledge of CAD. A large group of people worked on the mini-Max-D build, and there were two threads that connected them: they all work at SOLIDWORKS and they all want to do it again. I had the chance to talk to four members of the build team, Annie Cheung, Rob Jost, Chinloo Lama, and Sal Lama, and ask them about their experiences during the build. All four of these team members were building from the very beginning, and our discussions led to some interesting insights in how the build went. The interviews below have been edited for length and clarity.
What do you do at SOLIDWORKS? How long have you worked here?
Chinloo Lama: I’m a Director of User Experience Design supporting various products in SOLIDWORKS. I work on supporting workflows involving new technologies like touch screen, mobile devices, Augmented and Virtual Reality devices. I am also one of the core staff on the SOLIDWORKS Apps for Kids product. I am involved in all things STEAM outreach. I’ve been working here for more than 10 years.
Rob Jost: I’m a Senior Product Definition Specialist at SOLIDWORKS. We write the functional specifications that software developers follow when implementing new functionality in SOLIDWORKS. I’ve worked for SOLIDWORKS for 13 years.
Annie Cheung: I work for the SOLIDWORKS Product Definition team. We interface with a lot of customers and resellers for feedback on the product, and we help to define the future advancements that go into the product. I’ve worked for SOLIDWORKS for four years.
Sal Lama: I’m the Director of Product Definition for 3DEXPERIENCE Apps. I try to keep the product definition team focused on what the deliverables are and on doing the stuff they need to do. The team writes specifications for the product and makes new functionality come to life every year. I can’t count the years I’ve been at SOLIDWORKS. The running total is close to 15, 16 years. I’ve moved around a lot; I’ve been around a while.
How did you get involved with the Magic Wheelchair Build? What made you want to be involved?
Chinloo: I met [Magic Wheelchair Regional Director] David Vogel at the New York City Maker Faire last year. He started describing Magic Wheelchair and I was so enthralled by the idea that so many people without fabrication backgrounds would take the time to build something amazing and help someone have an epic day in their life. Not for a reward, just to lift up their spirits. Later, I googled Magic Wheelchair and found the Upworthy video of Magic Wheelchair creator Ryan Weimer. At that moment I thought I can totally do this. I’ve always wanted to do fabrication work; I’ve just never had an excuse to do it. I thought Magic Wheelchair was the coolest thing and it started eating away at my brain, and I knew it was totally viable.
We had a super busy time at work after I initially met David, but then in February I composed an e-mail to drum up interest. I thought if there wasn’t any I could do it myself, and if there was interest then we could have some fun. Surprisingly, with just one e-mail, everyone I contacted said, “Yeah, I’m interested, I totally want to do it. I don’t know if I have time, but this sounds cool.” Every single person I contacted said yes. It all just snowballed from there, and started with this interest in helping someone who probably doesn’t ever expect help. [The children in wheelchairs] have to deal with so much every single day, and the way people stare at them with such pity…you don’t want to be stared at like that all the time. So for one day of the year, they feel like a superhero. It’s worth it for the rest of the year. And I thought, I can totally put effort into doing something like that for someone.
Rob: Chinloo reached out to some people at work to see if we were interested. Of course I was, as it seemed like a great opportunity to use our tools for a good cause.
Annie: Chinloo sent an email out to a bunch of us, talking about how she met David at the Maker Faire and asking us if we wanted to do a build. It was positioned as something that would make you feel good about yourself. I think she knew that the group of people she e-mailed would step up and want to do something to give back to the community. I wanted to get involved because it’s an awesome organization—I wish I knew what they were doing a long time ago, how did this go under the radar for so long? And on a personal level, I’ve been looking for a way to give back. I’ve always wanted to get involved with different charities and volunteer for things, but scheduling and time commitments haven’t always worked. With Magic Wheelchair, I thought it was perfect. The timing is flexible, we use our own products, I get to learn different things, and it’s giving something completely unexpected to a really worthy child.
Sal: The truth is, if it wasn’t for Chinloo, maybe none of us would be involved. And her being my wife didn’t hurt. Once I understood what the mission of this organization was, it didn’t require much arm twisting. I love to build things, so the decision was easy breezy. And any excuse not to work on projects at home? Yes!
In your own words, describe your role in the build.
Chinloo: I was the team lead coordinating the product direction, as well as liaison between Magic Wheelchair and Jonah’s family with our team. For the build, I was primarily the artist. I worked on all the colorful finishing art from the flame stripes to the side panel Max-D face breaking out. I worked on detail sculpting the faces and adding dry brushing to make the faces look weathered and greased. I also worked on laser cutting the acrylic flames on the sides of the car.
Rob: I jumped right into SOLIDWORKS from the beginning and started doing the initial sizing and concepts. Once we felt like had a concept at the right size, I started in on the body design. Once the body was modeled up, I also did an initial design for the frame, although that changed a few times once we started building. For the body, I had to break the model up into sections that we could machine since our router can only cut 4 ft. X 8 ft. X 3”. Once machined, I sanded each part and then glued it all together. From there we all sanded it, hard coated it, and painted multiple times. In addition to that, I also helped hard coat the paint the wheels, glue and paint the frame.
Annie: Cattle wrangler? [laughs] My personality is such that I tend to do anything to help. I got involved in a lot of the project management tasks, procurement, pushing the schedule along, identifying the tasks that need to be done, bringing together teams that were trying to make decisions, and encouraging everyone, as best as I could, to keep on schedule, knowing that we had such an aggressive timeline. I also did a lot of testing and experimenting on the newer things that no one was familiar with, like hard coats and adhesives. I also go involved in a lot of logistical items, like who was going to the reveal, planning. I did a little bit of everything.
Sal: I was the foam fabricator. I have experience with the Shop Bot, so I took on the activity of creating all the tool paths and machining the foam. In addition, I resurrected the frame design. Initially it was a three-wheel design, because we were worried if one corner hit something it would wrack the whole frame. So if we had three wheels, we’d always have three points of contact, that was our original thinking. Then Magic Wheelchair said, “We always build four wheel frames!” so we modified it and did modifications throughout. Rob was busy focusing on the car body design and the faces, so it made sense to offload the frame. I was happy to do it, I’m an expert PVC gluer. Those were my two main contributions, and then I buzzed around and tried to help and keep people happy.
What part of the build were you most excited about?
Chinloo: I think the finishing artwork. It was exciting and stressful at the same time. I knew that my work could either make or break the overall realistic aesthetics of the design. It was my first time using spray paints and airbrushing. I really had to do so much YouTube studying and just trust my artistic sense. Thank goodness it all worked out!
Rob: Building the body. I’ve never modeled a car before in SOLIDWORKS, never mind actually make one. It became a chance to really test my surfacing skills.
Annie: Originally I had a lot of anxiety, seeing all the past builds and trying to do something similar to them, wondering whether we could meet that very high bar. I latched onto a lot of the details of the build, like when we spoke to Jonah and he said he liked lights and LEDs, I started pushing to get into the details of that so we could make his day. It’s always the little things that make the difference. I think we did an awesome job. It exceeded what I thought we could do. When I look at the costume, I’m really proud of what we were able to do, I think it stands up against a lot of the other builds, which are also awesome.
Sal: I’ll answer in a couple different ways. I was excited to, for the first time ever, machine foam. Not just because it’s a different medium to machine, that’s kind of boring, but I’ve always had a personal goal to machine foam, wrap it in fiberglass or carbon fiber, and make something cool that’s lightweight and structural. This was step one of learning how to do that. The other bit is, the whole concept of giving yourself for someone else with absolutely nothing expected in return other than what you know you’ll feel when it’s all done is what excited me most. Another answer to the question: when I finally saw Chinloo’s artwork, her paint job on the truck, it was so exciting to see it in its end state.
What was the biggest challenge the team faced during this project? What was your personal biggest challenge?
Chinloo: The tight schedule of the build and our travel schedule for work made it very stressful for us. Not all jobs could be done in parallel. So for the few serial jobs, we needed to not be the bottleneck or the hold up for progress. Personally, not being able to get home in time to make dinner and spend evenings with my kids wore on me after a while. I’m really glad they are older and understand the reasoning behind the sacrifice. Bonus is that they knew they would get spoiled once things settled back down!
Rob: For me, the biggest challenge was figuring out how to get the body machined so we could let the machine mill the most surface area, but avoid any undercuts. Our machine is a 3 axis mill so we can only cut the foam from one direction. Once we glued it together, another challenge was doing some manual body shaping. There were some really rough areas that had undercut that I had to manually sand away. It was tough to try to match the surface I created in the CAD file just by sanding with my hands.
As a team, I think getting the wheels to spin with the motors was the biggest challenge.
Annie: The biggest challenge was time. Us trying to manage our own demanding jobs, we had people that already had planned vacations, we were in a month with a major holiday. To just keep going with the time constraints. My personal biggest challenge…because of the anxiety I had about the deadline, I think during the project we never put on the brakes; it was very go-go-go. After the reveal, it was almost like I didn’t know what to do with my time. Like, what now?
Sal: We all have different levels of making under our belts, many of us a fair amount, so figuring out how to get out of problems as they arose wasn’t too bad. But we were up against a massively aggressive timetable. I think making sure everything got done in the order it needed to get done, especially on that last week, so that things weren’t wet while we tried to do something, that was the biggest challenge. I give huge kudos to Annie, because she cracked the whip and had us get it done, and she put in late nights when the rest of us were like, “I’m out.”
Personally, my biggest challenge had nothing to do with the build. It had everything to do with my poor children. It is 100% accurate to say my kids were neglected by both of their parents for at least the two last weeks. There were four days in the row where I’d call and ask, “Have you eaten?” and my youngest would say, “Yeah, I had mac n’ cheese,” and I thought That’s four days in a row! Because that’s the only thing he knows how to cook. And at the end, I thought Man, this sucks. But it paid off because, whether it was immediately impactful or it’ll hit them in 30 years, they got to see the result of what their parents did: the impact on that one child. And I don’t think in their eyes it sucked to have four days of mac n’ cheese, but as a parent it killed me to know I’ve spent zero times with my kids this week. That was the biggest personal struggle.
What surprised you most about this project?
Chinloo: That after it was completed the whole team unanimously wanted to take on another one ASAP! The fact that some of them were sounding like they had costume-making withdrawal was blowing my mind! We have great people here.
Rob: How fast it all really came together. In just six weeks we managed to get it designed and created, all while still doing our day to day jobs at SOLIDWORKS. It really came down to great teamwork.
Annie: How it came together. We kept pulling together and making it happen. I kept looking at pictures of Max-D and wondering how are we going to make this look like the real thing? It was hard to see how it would come together when we were looking at the pink foam in its raw form, but as each of the pieces got completed, it was like, oh, this does look like the Max-D!
Sal: It may not be the most surprising, but the first thing that came to mind was that we were able to create this thing. I knew we’d be able to build something, and I knew it would be cool, but this was pretty damn awesome. I also had no idea 3-inch rigid foam insulation cost so much! And I was surprised, well, impressed (that’s a version of surprised, right?) with just how quickly Albert [Hernandez] was able to say, “Okay, I’m on it!” and whip up a 3D model, get in the 3DEXPERIENCE Lab, and make it. Rob and Albert did all of the CAD work and between the two of them it was amazing. With Albert, we’d white board something, and then within a couple hours he was in the 3DEXPERIENCE Lab making it. It was surprisingly awesome.
Has this project taught you anything about SOLIDWORKS as a software? Has using it the way a layperson would affected you (as someone who works on the software)?
Chinloo: It’s clear to me that we have some parts we want to enhance and streamline. We definitely design SOLIDWORKS for a specific workflow—professional, commercial. In this work of fabrication and makers, where people are trying to bang things out on the spot with an ad hoc solution, SOLIDWORKS is not as flexible and not as quick, unless you’re an expert with the tool. Fortunately, we are, so we were able to do it. But there are definitely times where I was thinking, for a layman or a garage builder, it might take them twice or three times as long to figure something out. So just using the modeling tool itself, there are certainly things we can enhance or improve when it comes to this flexible, ad hoc kind of behavior.
Rob: Yes, absolutely. There were definitely a few workflow issues and limitations I discovered that can help make us better at surfacing. Also, I realized that getting something made isn’t as easy as hitting the print button from SOLIDWORKS. Getting something machined or cut with the laser is a lot more involved. I think we have a big opportunity to make that easier for our users.
Annie: A lot of times before, working in the 3DEXPERIENCE Lab, you live in a bubble. You create something digitally, that’s awesome, and it ends there. But now that we’ve done more projects making something we’ve actually started in SOLIDWORKS, it’s great for us to learn possible gaps that exist that would make going from the digital to the real thing a lot easier. This project has helped me identity with users more and feel their pains, and figure out how to make those pains go away with the software. I also found that when there are time constraints, you can’t always do best practices, not when it’s go-go-go.
Sal: No. I use SOLIDWORKS personally beyond the professional day to day that I do for various projects, and I’ve used it in the industry. I know what the day in the life of a non-corporate SOLIDWORKS user feels like.
What was the best hack you used during this project, with SOLIDWORKS or any of the build machines/materials?
Chinloo: I used black and white permanent markers to outline and define the crackling design around the robot face. The effect of the crisp lines against the smooth gradient of spray painted colors made the effect of a cracked body really pop. I loved the outcome. I will do that as much as I can in the future. The funniest hack was me repurposing an old electric toothbrush from my kids and putting on a small piece of sand paper on the brush head to create a mini orbital sander for refining the shapes on the robot face. At one point, I was sanding the robot’s teeth!
Rob: When we glued the body together I realized that the ceiling of the car was a couple inches too low because of the 3 inch foam we were using. In the CAD model the roof is only an inch thick, but we could only machine the roof from the top. So we ended up with a thicker roof than we needed. In order to avoid Jonah’s head or headrest from interfering with the roof I took a Dremel tool and manually “carved out” a recess into the ceiling so his head could fit. It wasn’t the smoothest when finished but it did the job.
I also want to say we were pretty proud that we avoided the use of duct tape anywhere on the build – until the day of the reveal, that is. One of the suspension coils started to come loose that day so we finally had to break out the duct tape to fix it quickly.
Annie: I think what spoke to my very type-A personality, being hyper precise, was when I was doing the paper prototyping for the spikes Rob had modeled, I used the SOLIDWORKS tools and did all sorts of equations to figure out what the flat pattern would be for the cones so we could roll it into the shape of a cone. SOLIDWORKS helped my need for it to be exact—no rounding to numbers, the software enabled me to be exact down to ten decimal places. Rob guess the dimensions in his model, so there were crazy numbers, like 2.6575, so I said, I’m going to use SOLIDWORKS to make it exact! We never compromised on the details.
Sal: I don’t know if I can claim inventing this, I think I’ve heard about it or seen it somewhere, but we totally used a vacuum to snake our electrical lines into the frame. I can’t take credit for it. We had to run electric wire for the motors and the lights through the PVC frame. Traditionally you’d run an electric snake, and I have a snake at home, but I didn’t bring it in that day. And I said, “What else can we do?” There weren’t that many curves, but I thought ah! We tied a tissue or a paper towel, to the end of some lightweight thing, we found some thread. We had to plug up various holes in the PVC chassis. We put that paper into one hole, put that vacuum in the other and plugged all the other ones up, and the vacuum sucked it through. Then we had string going through the pipe in the right path, then we untied that, tied the electrical lines to it, and that’s how we fished our wires. Via vacuum sucking! It was fun.
What do you see as the future of the Magic Wheelchair project at SOLIDWORKS?
Chinloo: I have no doubt this will be amazing and it will blow out of whack. But my big fear is that this will be a flash in the pan, where we get all this interest now, and then later on we drop everything. And that’s it—bye, bye Magic Wheelchair! I want to blossom this relationship into something sustainable, and maybe we do a build every year. Maybe cycle build team members in and out. But I’m pretty sure this is going to be one of those pendulum swings, and I want it to be a bias pendulum, where you go really high positive and swing back to equilibrium. I hope this is something everyone wants to do. I want to show how the SOLIDWORKS communities and the DASSAULT SYSTEMES communities pull together to do these good, community based projects, and sustain it each year. There’s already folks that are very much into it, and we’re going to announce our work to the company at the next quarterly brand meeting. Once more people hear about, there are going to be some who say, “I want to be part of this, how do we do it?” I think we’re going to have to be prepared, once the floodgates open, with how we follow through.
Rob: I definitely see us doing another build, and hopefully more people in the company can get involved. It would be great if it became an annual thing, or something that goes on year round.
Annie: I hope we can do more builds, but I also hope that we can support Magic Wheelchair by helping them build their community and awareness, so they can reach that goal of building a costume for every kid in a wheelchair. Everyone I’ve spoken to about this project thinks it’s awesome, and I hope by us doing this people will realize that anyone can do this and will realize that you don’t need to have a huge company behind you to build something for a deserving kid.
Sal: What I hope is that whether we build zero, one, or many costumes from here until SOLIDWORKS World, my hope is that on main stage we make a massive deal about it. We go all out, we celebrate Jonah, we celebrate Magic Wheelchair, we make a huge deal out of it, and we get the 6,000 people that come to the show and the tens of thousands of people that watch it online so excited that every kid in America gets a costume next year. If I know one thing, it’s that the SOLIDWORKS community is mighty enough to pull this off. There’s nothing more amazing than the passion and the power that the SOLIDWORKS user community is capable of. If we just do it right and get people excited, you will see hundreds of costumes.
What I think will happen is something between there. It depends on how interested the corporation is in pursing that and celebrating that. If we want to really blow this thing out and actually super charge our community, we have the opportunity to do it, and I’d hate to see us lose the opportunity.
Do you plan on being a part of future builds? What kinds of costumes would you like to build in the future?
Chinloo: Yes! Absolutely! Without hesitation! I’ve been pushing for an aviation, aerospace kind of idea. Like, what kid wouldn’t want a space shuttle, or a rover? But I have no doubt that our team and other teams have the skillset to do something as organic as a dragon, or something that’s not metallic and prismatic. I think we can do almost anything.
Rob: I definitely plan on doing this again. Everyone on the team is hoping to build a Star Wars build, and that’s great and all, but I’m really hoping our next kiddo has a thing for 80’s movies. It would be incredible if we could build an Ecto-1 or a flying Delorean.
Annie: Yeah, of course. I’ve learned so much from this build, I hope it will make the next build easier, and I can learn a lot more about other things. I’m one of the team members that has always been saying Voltron. I’d like to do everything from my childhood, I have ideas of what I’d want, but I also like the idea of meeting a child and being surprised by what they want, and doing the research. I don’t think any of us ever thought of doing a monster truck. We all learned about a new thing, and about how to do the details. I like the element of the kiddo being the boss and we do what they want. Their imaginations can spawn all sorts of out-of-the-box stuff.
Sal: Yes, I will certainly be part of a future build. I like the idea of building something less prismatic. Not that the truck body wasn’t curvy, but it was still sort of mechanical. I’d love to build something completely off the wall, non-mechanical. Someone in another meeting said a Smurf, and I’m like, “I’d love to build a Smurf!” I like the idea of stepping outside of the traditional SOLIDWORKS space. We have software that can make these weird things very easily, so I’d love to push into that space. I’m a self-proclaimed LEGO fan, so I’d love to put that into a costume. But besides that, I’m happy. Whatever the kiddo wants.
Is there anything else you want people to know about the project?
Chinloo: This is a great way to get a design challenge that has a real payoff in the end. At the end of the day, what you deliver will reflect your passion to create.
Rob: Worth every ounce of your time and energy. It’s a great way to use our software, see what our customers experience every day, learn new skills, and all while doing it for a great cause.
Annie: Get involved! There’s a lot that can be achieved with sheer human spirit and the power of people getting together, and I think that’s what Magic Wheelchair promotes the most: magic is real. I think it needs people to get together for a common goal, and you can make magic happen and we can make a difference in this world. You don’t need a magic wand or special spells or powers, we have that. We just have to put it in action.
Sal: It’s really, really hard in a short time frame. It’s really, really fun when you’ve got the right team. It will make you feel really, really good.
Thank you to Annie, Rob, Chinloo, and Sal for taking the time to discuss the build, and thank you to all the build team members and behind-the-scenes SOLIDWORKS employees for their time and dedication to this project.
Want to get involved? You can still donate to Magic Wheelchair in Jonah’s name here. There’s still more to come from our exciting Magic Wheelchair project, so keep an eye on this space and, as always, keep on (monster) truckin’!
SOLIDWORKS is partnering with the Magic Wheelchair to create an over-the-top costume for a child in a wheelchair. According to their mission statement, “Magic Wheelchair builds epic costumes for kiddos in wheelchairs — at no cost to families.” Keep On (Monster) Truckin’ is an ongoing series dedicated to updating our readers on the current project’s progress.