Leadership Lessons from Building a Mandalorian Suit

Zach Hughes
5 min readNov 3, 2023

In retrospect, had we known how much work it was going to be, we probably would have never done it. That’s how it is with ambitious endeavors. It starts with a vision. Then, we commit. Then, we nearly fail in a hundred different ways, yet we persevere to the end.

This year, my 17-year-old son, Caleb, and I made a Mandalorian suit for Halloween. I wore it to work. He wore it that evening. This story starts about a year ago when we made a 3D-printed and motorized Iron Man helmet. That was an ambitious project and we pulled it off. You can read all about it here.

Shortly after that, we started talking about next Halloween. What will it be? How can we go even bigger? I can’t remember who suggested it first, but the target was set: We will build a Mandalorian suit. I remember the first commitment of the project: purchasing the stereolithography (STL) files. After Halloween last year, Caleb looked for screen-accurate Mandalorian full-body armor files. They went on sale, and we bought them. Now, we were financially committed.

Scaling

STL files are 3D shapes that you can manipulate in CAD software. They look great on a computer screen, but how do we know if they will actually fit my body when they print? This is especially important with the helmet. Trial and error is one option, but you have to remember that some of these prints take up to 4 days to complete. We found one way to speed that up.

You know that front-facing camera on your iPhone that you use to unlock it with FaceID? That’s LiDAR and it detects depth and geometry. We found a free app, Scandy Pro, to scan my head into an STL file, so Caleb could import it into the CAD software and scale the helmet to fit. Turns out I’m 3% smaller than the original file.

The next thing we needed was a bigger 3D printer. He made the Iron Man helmet on a Creality Ender 3 V2, which was great, but small. We made the helmet in 4 different pieces and fused it together. A Mandalorian suit is made up of a whole lot of individual pieces, many of which are quite large. While this technically may have been possible on the Ender 3 V2, for all practical purposes, we needed something that could handle a larger volume.

Equipment upgrades and regrets

Caleb bought a refurbished Creality CR-10S Pro. It was a good deal and a good printer, or so we thought. This thing had a terrible habit of failing in so many different ways. While disappointing, this isn’t unfamiliar territory for the Hughes family. We’re techy people, so got to work on troubleshooting, researching, testing, buying replacement parts, upgrades, etc.

One problem would get solved, and another one would pop up. It was the lemon of 3D printers. Unfortunately, it never failed so completely that we gave up hope. We kept working on it, chasing the fallacy that this “one more thing” would be the final fix.

We lost a lot of time on this. Less than two weeks before Halloween, we bit the bullet and bought a better printer. We got the ELEGOO Neptune 3 Plus. This thing prints like a dream. Man, how I wish we had bought it six months ago.

Crunch time

Now, the clock was ticking, and we had some serious work to get done. We had the new big printer spitting out the big parts. We had the old Ender printing smaller pieces, and we even borrowed a friend’s Ender 3 Pro to supplement the workload. Yes, we had three 3D printers lined up in my basement spinning spools of filament 24–7 for a while there.

The soft parts

3D printers are great for making hard stuff, but the Mandalorian suit contains plenty of soft pieces too. Caleb and I were a little wiser with the buy/build decisions here. We made certain pieces from scratch, like the cape, cummerbund, leg band, and gloves, but bought the flight suit, belt, and bandolier.

The artistry

You might think that pieces come off a 3D printer ready to go, but they don’t. You just get a piece of rough grey plastic. From there, we got to work on the details like sanding, priming, bondo, sanding, priming, sanding, priming, painting, masking, and painting. Did I mention priming? FYI, Menards in Brooklyn Park is sold out of primer. I bought it all.

Caleb really shined with the finish work. He’s way more detail-oriented than I am and is patient when making the finishing touches. He rubbed graphite into the painted armor pieces with a cotton ball to get that perfect “beskar” look. He hand-painted battle damage on the thigh and knee plates.

Final assembly

With less than 72 hours before Halloween, we got to work on assembling the suit. It’s about 25 individual pieces. We experimented with a few different techniques, such as Velcro, hot glue, super glue, and E6000. Hot glue was the go-to. We used no less than 30 sticks.

The night before Halloween, I donned the completed suit for the first time. Wow, that was a lot of work.

The leadership lesson

I cannot tell you how many times I asked myself, “Is this worth it?” We’re putting a crazy amount of effort into a Halloween costume to show my coworkers and friends. I hope so.

I wanted to teach my son and show my family that is good to do hard, ambitious things. It’s good to set an enormous goal, stick to it, battle through the setbacks, and finish.

I hope that Caleb will look back at this project one day with a sense of accomplishment. Having ambition is good. Pushing your technical abilities, developing creative problem-solving capabilities, and expressing your artistry is the stuff of life. This may have been crazy, but it’s the good kind of crazy.

Read this article on my blog site or listen to it on my podcast🎙️

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Zach Hughes

Technology Leader at CHS. Passionate about leadership and innovation. Posts are my own.