Captain Fanplastic

Edward Chudleigh is a commercial pilot, an engineer, an artist and an inventor and he has a self-built, state-of-the-art computer and robotics lab in his basement in Bath. And being of an inventive mind, his work designing and building face shields for the pandemic – for which he received his MBE in 2021 – is just the beginning…

It all started with me in the basement, and it ended with me in the basement”, says Edward Chudleigh, referring to a period of time and intense activity in 2020 that resulted in him receiving an MBE.

Edward is a corporate pilot, an engineer skilled in innovation, and a sculptor. In the early part of 2020 his wife Rachel was in China, well before the first Coronavirus cases in the UK. “She told me what was going to hit us. She saw the level of control and rules in China; you were only allowed to enter a park wearing a face mask, showing how quickly the administration was clamping down on it.”

I rang a few friends who were doctors, nurses and surgeons and they said they were hearing the same. One medic said to me, ‘We are very worried because if it does happen we don’t have the PPE for it.’ And I said ‘what is PPE?’ They explained that a face shield is the most important element of PPE because it protects your eyes, mouth and nose, all the sensitive areas where you could absorb any aspiration from anyone affected. So I started designing and making some at home.”

Perhaps a resolution that could only be made by a fraction of the population. But Edward is different. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Design/Engineering from Brunel University London. He worked for Dyson for 11 years as a design manager and engineering optimisation manager, then became a commercial pilot flying a variety of Single Engine, and Multi Engine Aircraft. In between flying he has a basement with seven robots and 12 computers, and he builds sculptures from polylactic acids. More of that later.

“So I built a machine called Dorothy,” says Edward. When I looked askance, he explains, “She is named after Dorothy Vaughan, the pioneering black female scientist who helped NASA with the space programme and introduced them to computer programming.”

Fair enough. “I started to programme them to make prototype face shields and I knew I could make a lot of them. I was using 3D printers, laser cutters and robotic knife cutters – you make a prototype and then ask the computer (Dorothy) to make loads of them. A few friends and local businesses got involved. It was a standard design, but it got more complex and I started to talk to surgeons around the country, about how it could be adapted. It was incredible the amount of learning that took place in such a short period.

“The first pieces I made were with plumbing installation pipes because materials were so scarce then. It then got more advanced and we started building them in St Michael’s Without Church. At the peak we [the company was called Foldall] had 365 volunteers and a core team who were instrumental to its success. Some local cafés and grocers – such as Green Bird Café in Margaret’s Buildings, Larkhall Greengrocers, and many more – got involved to provide the much-needed lunches and refreshments for our volunteers. It couldn’t have been done without everyone who contributed. King Edward’s School very kindly loaned us their sports hall to use. The volunteers would come every day, socially distanced. We were selling the face shields to the NHS to cover the cost of materials, and local businesses were employed to help work on the project. Other companies were selling shields at great profit whereas we sold them purely to cover costs.

It wasn’t all a smooth ride with Dorothy because she once cut the top of Edward’s finger off

“I’d never done anything like that before. We were producing them for hospitals, care homes, schools, funeral directors. We used about four companies including local signmaker Freestyle who had machines that would cut out the clear ‘screen’ component of the shield. They were working 24/7 cutting the clear screens to then be picked up and assembled in the church or sports hall by volunteers to make the final products. By working with these businesses we helped them to bring their employees out of furlough. We produced a total of 82,300 face shields, and at its height we were making almost 5000 a day. At one point we overtook the Royal Mint in making PPE. It was quite a good way to detach yourself from the horror of what was really happening.”

“The robots cut the shape of the shield and the jigs put the elements together. The jigs were designed and built in my house and then when more were needed we used our suppliers to make exact copies. When I was designing them I thought ‘how can I build a jig so nobody can get it wrong?’ At Dyson we used to build jigs and prototypes, so I just did it the same way.

Seeing the volunteers working was like a scene from World War II of making munitions – quite nostalgic. Dorothy would be working 24/7 in my house making components, and suppliers did the same for other components. The volunteers would then be assembling all the components with the jigs. At the end of every day DPD would collect the shields and deliver them to hospitals the next day.”
It wasn’t all a smooth ride with Dorothy however, because she once cut the top of Edward’s finger off. “It was really late, about 1am or 2am. I was tired and my wife Rachel told me I should go to bed.” He didn’t, lost focus briefly and found his finger in the firing line as Dorothy was operating her pneumatic ramps at very high pressure.

“I said to Rachel, ‘I am in the process of having my finger cut off’. You can’t interrupt Dorothy; there was no way of stopping her when she is working.”

The upper part of his finger gone, Edward went to the RUH. “I sat there with my hand in the air. The doctor came along and I went to see the surgeon who said, ‘Hey it’s the face shield guy. Why are you here?’ And I said, ‘Because I cut my finger off making your bloody shields’.” Once Edward had his finger sewn back he went home and carried on working.

“This really enthused my love of using artificial intelligence in the right way. I put Dorothy down to helping save quite a few hundred lives. The beauty of it, because we were using robotics, was that we could change the footprint of how it was made in two dimensions before it became three dimensions.

“A newspaper at the time said that I was following in the steps of James Dyson, but I’m just a person who likes playing with large bits of Lego. And when you run out you go and make it up. I’m a geek and I love making things. During those few months, I’ve never worked so hard in my life to be honest. When lockdown finished and everyone was allowed out, I think we were the only people who went to bed and slept!”

Edward built his basement robotics lab, before Dorothy was created, just out of interest. “I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I just wanted to look at the elements of how to build robotics and computers. So I started to build machines and robots, I bought several, with the idea of trying to make different structures out of different materials – because plastic was already getting a bad name for itself. The machines were integral in teaching me what they could do and what they could make.”

People are worried about AI taking over the world. But it can be used to help all manner of things

The result was Genesis2™, another robot designed and built by Edward. “Genesis2™ is the love of my life and she is also a pain in the ass. She makes what’s called an engineering billet, meaning material test samples. She is the only machine in the world that can take all manner of combined/mixed plastics – including all the things you have in your bins including black plastics, film and crisp packets. These go into a hopper and the robot combines all the plastics to make a new material.”

The computers and robots work collaboratively. “There are several computers that analyse the process. They are created as twins, two machines that sit next to each other and learn from each other. So one follows a process and makes a material out of it. While it’s doing this it is programmed to be transparent – as her sister is getting ready to do the next lot, she turns round and says ‘Before you get started don’t do this, do it this way and check this part of your code.’

“They talk in 1s and 0s; it’s digital. I can’t understand what they are saying – it’s too fast and complex most of the time. But I can translate what their commands are. There is also a mother computer that looks at how they behave. They are very long and very quiet. When they work it’s like the sound of a creaking galleon as they manipulate all the bits and pieces such as the molecular structures, and the Van der Waal forces (attraction and repulsions between atoms and molecules).”

Edward returns to Dorothy’s namesake: “Back in the day Dorothy Vaughan was doing hand calculations for NASA during the space race, and she was instrumental to the success of many space missions. Computers can do this in seconds now. You build them and they educate you and give you a path of where you need to go. Dorothy Vaughan went on to teach herself, her team and indeed NASA early computer programming; she’s a huge inspiration.”

The resulting material is called Plastain™ and Edward has been trialling it in Bath with companies such as Corkage in Chapel Row. It’s a simple business model – Edward takes their plastic rubbish away and charges less than they would have paid. “I tell them ‘I’ll turn your rubbish into a product you can use’. Then they buy that product from me based on what they would pay online and it becomes a part of their business. The products will also eventually be available to the public. The Plastain™ material looks a bit like marble, it’s incredibly tough and it can be recycled around nine times and even beyond that, if combined with a higher-grade virgin material that gives it its strength. Edward met with the Prince of Wales at Windsor Castle in June to introduce the project whilst visiting for his investiture.

Edward’s sculptures are also a demonstration of the right way to use plastics and to see the capability of the machines he has built. Many of his sculptures are created with polylactic acids, essentially potato starch and sugar. “It is quite a strong material – potato starch and sugar is a biodegradable material but you can also give it a coating to protect it. I have one at the Bishopstrow Hotel and Spa that is in their grounds and another one is about to go in.

The idea behind these sculptures came from observing Edward’s parents’ beehives. “I looked at the way the honeycomb in the hives is made and then programmed machines to make that same structure. It is a very strong structure, 100% plant based, and 100% biodegradable. I give the machine the shape and it pulls the code itself and you structure and manipulate part of the code to perfect it.

“I remember being fascinated by the wax and the structure of honeycomb. It is frequently used in engineering and can be found in the engineering of aircraft and space equipment. I wanted to build a robot that can make that at 1000 times the speed a bee can. There is a moment when the sculpture is in the garden and you see a honey bee land on it, and I know the honey bee is essentially landing on a plant that it helped pollinate – there’s a key message there. It might look like copper and be made from industrial materials, but it’s 100% plant.

Edward is a pretty amazing individual, and someone who uses his knowledge to make a difference. “It’s busy, but everything I do has an intrinsic link, with robotics and how computers work. People are worried about AI taking over the world. But it can be used to help all manner of things. What fascinates me is how it can move towards solving illnesses like Alzheimers and cancer, and so on. The more we learn, the better the knowledge can be used to make a difference.”

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