Welding Goes Hollywood

Lincoln Electric’s robotic welders featured in Iron Man 2.

Over the last two years it’s safe to say that no main stream entity has done more to promote the welding trade than the Iron Man franchise. The movies and comic books are based on the fictional character Tony Stark, a super-rich inventor who develops an iron suit that he uses to fight crime. Of course, to build such a suit would require a significant amount of welding, and the film recognizes that. Welding was featured prominently in the first movie with Lincoln Electric’s Power MIG and Precision TIG machines seeing significant screen time. Also, in 2008, the American Welding Society teamed with the creators of the Iron Man comic series to create “The Invincible Iron Man: Forging the Future.” This special-edition comic was designed as a tool to help promote industry awareness.

The Sequel
A little over a year ago, production began on Iron Man 2. The producers knew that they wanted to feature welding again, but they wanted to go about it differently. Instead of using the same welding machines that were used in the first film, they decided that something a little more high-tech was in order. Since they had a successful relationship with Lincoln the first time around, the producers gave the company a call. Lincoln suggested using a Power Wave i400 welding power source and a FANUC ARC Mate 100iC robotic arm. The producers liked the idea and made the decision to move forward.

The robotic welding arm that was used in Iron Man 2, autographed by John Favreau
The robotic welding arm that was used in Iron Man 2, autographed by John Favreau

Engineering the Action
Of course, if a robotic welding arm was going to be used in the film, someone was going to have to program it. That’s where Brian Simons, a robotic programmer with Lincoln’s Automation Application Group, stepped in. “The company sent me to the set to help out with the programming,” says Simons. “In total, I spent about seven days on set over the course of two visits.”

Working on the set of a movie presented several challenges for Simons. Not only did he have to program the movements of the robots, but they had to be perfectly timed with the movements of actors Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. “It had to be timed just right,” he explains. “When they walked by a set point, the robot had to start making a weld right away.” Further complicating things was the fact that nothing was set in stone. The role of the welder in each scene was often adjusted.

“There wasn’t necessarily a detailed plan as to what the welder would be doing in each scene,” he explains. “Most of it was done on the fly. A set dresser would get an order from either John Favreau, the director, or Eric Heffron, the first assistant director, and then relay it to me.” Once he received his direction, Simons would spring into action, programming the arm as quickly as possible.

Programming on the fly isn’t easy, but his previous experience programming in the field prepared him for the challenge. “I do a lot of on-the-fly programming when I’m on the road for customer demonstrations,” says Simons. “For those we typically don’t have time to program it the day before, so I was used to the challenge of getting the arm moving correctly on short notice.”

Not your Typical Job Site
While the work done on the set was familiar, the location certainly wasn’t and neither were the demands. Movie sets don’t follow a 9-to-5 schedule and often work late in to the night. “There was at least one occasion where I was on set from 8 a.m. until almost midnight,” says Simons. That’s not to say he was programming the entire time. In fact, there was quite a bit of downtime where he was able to stand in the background and observe the “magic” of Hollywood in action. “I was blown away by the work done by the lighting guys and all of the set and prop crews,” he says. “They’re the true geniuses behind the scenes. The actors get most of the credit, but these guys are incredible. It was an honor to work with them.”

Overall, Simons was thrilled with the experience and how the project turned out. He credits his colleagues at Lincoln, especially the company’s Los Angeles office, with helping make sure that everything went off without a hitch. “This was just a great opportunity,” says Simons. “This isn’t something you get to do every day. I’m very grateful to management for allowing me to work on this project.”

The movie came out May 7 and immediately shot to the top of the box office. It took in more than $133 million dollars in its first weekend. That’s an impressive number for sure. What’s more is that every single person who bought a ticket and contributed to that number got exposed to some of the most cutting-edge welding technology on the planet. Welding is a low-tech trade? Not so fast, my friend. As the world now knows, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association