Mecha design; manipulators

Consider your hand. You control all those 27 bones through muscles and tendons. The nerves give you feedback and send your commands down the like, commands that you are not even conscious of. Twist your hand, and you see it twisting. The large muscles come through the skin, but all the fine motion is lost unless we specifically look for it. It can grab and hold things in a wide variety of positions and ways, some that we don’t even know before someone else teaches that. These hands can build and destroy in equal amounts, they are our the tools of our creations.

Transferring that to a giant robot is a bit of a hassle.

Much like with a lot of other direct transfer elements with human body and giant robots, adapting hands 1:1 is an easy concept for sure. The idea of similar multi-use manipulator is attractive from the get go, but depending on the setting, human-like hands might not be the best option. A human-like hand requires far more parts, development, maintenance and simple tech than a say a pincer or more simple manipulator. Of course, the main argument for having a hand for a giant robot is its versatility, especially when it comes to weapons. However, that’s something that could be easily done with hardpoints where weapon is being mounted. We should also question how versatile does the hand of a giant mecha be, especially for a war machine.

Broadly speaking, all human-like hands with mecha follow the same basic idea, there isn’t much deviation. It’s either smooth or cubic. Using this example from a VF-19 serves as a good showcase.

VF-19 hand

While it looks complex, it’s more about the layered elements that make it look complex. Inner functions are of course barely thought, they’re not important. The fact that it looks like it could work and has plausible design elements, like the knuckle guard and fingers’ segments layer on top of each other when bent, is more than enough. Studio Nue has always preferred rounder elements to their design (sometimes dubbed as Bubble hands), especially with their older works. In Gundam, Sunrise and Bandai have preferred using more cubic hands, although exceptions are aplenty.

Gundam MS fed manipulator

The above generic Mobile Suit manipulator was designed for the models, but seeing how Bandai and Sunrise design their mechas models in mind nowadays, it’s a good example of a hand that’s more or less designed for wielding a gun and a beam sabre. It’s a bit more straightforward than VF-19’s, less well-rounded. The question of course is, if this hand is largely made for weapon carrying, why isn’t it designed as such?

The answer is, of course, because of Rule of Cool. When mechas are designed as characters, they’ve almost always given large amount of human characteristics in order to showcase dramatic events. Hands are no different in this. Beam sabre battles would be less dramatic and interesting if the manipulator would be specifically designed holder than a hand.

Controlling a hand like this has basically three options, direct 1:1 input, control macros or brain wave input. Variations and combinations do apply. While a “glove controller” would be idea, that’s pretty much what you do then with that arm. It’ dedicated for that arm, and the rest of the controls are either automatic or left other arm or legs. We discussed control macros previously, and this is most likely the best option overall, if brain wave scanning tech is not available in your setting.

Designing mecha’s hand really isn’t anything hard; just look at your own and mechanise it. Give it details for something to grab attention and some panels for easy access.

Giant robots don’t really have a need for similar level of sophistication when it comes to their hands, a simple grasping arm should be enough with some level of modification to suit the needed purpose. Hardpoints add a lot of versatility as well.

These take less maintenance and production costs would be lower too
These take less maintenance and production costs would be lower too

Of course, fiction doesn’t need to play by the rules of reality all that much, and if technology is advanced enough in a fiction to produce these things, why not? They could of course build better and simpler manipulators, but sometimes you do seek more complex solution for the sake of all the options it could give you. A gripping manipulator above doesn’t really offer many ways to grasp a thing.

Some franchises mix human-like hands with specifically designed manipulators, Muv-Luv popping to my mind foremost.

To be fair, this is complex for the sake of being complex, some of these steps could be dropped
To be fair, this is complex for the sake of being complex, some of these steps could be dropped. It’s a pretty good example of a very specific manipulator arm that works in junction of the main hand, something that I personally would like to see done more

Another one would Mobile Suit Z Gundam‘s The O with its assisting manipulators underneath its skirt. These manipulators question why would The O even need human-like hands, when the three-prong manipulator does everything they do. The answer to this is, of course, because the human design does not use that sort of hand. In a way, mecha in general should always be contrasted to armoured knights of legends, but that’s another topic.

Hands are ultimately something that Japanese inspired mecha design does. For giant robots, America has always preferred more built-in options. MegaBot’s Mark II is a good example of this.


American vision usually attached the weaponry onto a pre-fixed arm that may have some freedom of motion to it, but is always more dependent on the movements of the main body. Compare this to Suidobashi Heavy Industry’s Kuratas and the difference in approach is notable.

The idea of having this built-in approach and lack of manipulators is just as valid.  While it lessens on-the-fly options and puts some limitations, it eliminates loads of moving parts that would require maintenance. The most prominent film example of this sort of thing would be our good old friend, ED-209.

I should probably write a whole entry on ED-209.
I should probably write a whole entry on ED-209.

Unlike with mechas with arms and manipulators, you can see ED-209 guns are its arms with no manipulators, as it needs none. It’s a robust little connector that looks sturdy and serves only to take the beating from the cannon’s recoil and swivel enough to shoot whoever full of holes.

Keep an eye to hands you see in mecha films and shows. Take notice how they are portrayed and how they function. Rarely you will see them doing things outside the capabilities of human hands, and showcasing how they are actually controlled is even rarer. Sometimes they take advantage of what a machine hand can do, like how Gundam washes clothes by rotating its wrist 360-degrees in repetition.

Washing machine Gundam

Mecha design; organic vs industrial

While organic vs industrial design is relatively dry-cut most of the time, I do feel that it’s a subject that needs to be touched upon to give further idea how to put some twists to whatever giant robot you are making.

Most Japanese mechas have a level of organic in them in form of general humanoid shape, but organic design is more about bio, about the smoother, naturalistic lines. This is of course contrasted with harsh corner and straight lines in the design that are almost innately machine-like, produced by human industrial forces instead of nature. Something like a tank or a car can be fully inorganic in design, but more often than not, elements from nature are applied to make it more pleasing to the eye.

There is a constant middle ground between the two, but it’s not exactly biomechanical. Gradual change between organic and mechanic design in giant robots has more to do with the base of general visual, while biomechanical is straight up combination of the two in harmony. There’s also techno-organic design, but that’s sort the same thing. It just has slightly stronger emphasize on the technological side rather than having the two governing together.

To use actual art an example of organic design, Art Nouveau is by its core is tied to naturalistic growth and style. It’s a direct contrast to the industrial style. For example, Gustav Gurschner’s Lampe Nautile, Vers 1899, exhibits the basic loose roles for organic style.


The rules are not hard, and I’ve effectively already mentioned them; curved, flowing, natural. There are no real harsh corners anywhere on the lamp and no visible connection points. Instead of steel gray, earthly bronze was used combined with the pearly look of a shell. From visual side of thing, go check Alfons Mucha, my personal all-time favourite.

That’s the stuff

To directly to Art Nouveau, Bauhaus’ had many core industrial designs that still affect how things are made, produced and designed. An industrial design is rather the opposite to organic, leaving less room for the organic growth and cutting the chase.


This 1930’s Bauhaus desk lamp shows some of the core elements in the rules; unapologetic in simplicity, not hiding joints or the fact that the form follows function and not the other way around. Rather than an earthly bronze, steel shine is applied to the piece with a brass joint at the base with a white baccelite switch. Even the switch is emphasized with a slight raiser from the base.

The two lamps both would serve in their function as a light giver, but the other fits for more moodier lighting, while the other is more a tool for office use. This relative idea is apparent in mecha design as well.

Aura Battler Dunbines Aura Battlers most likely is the well-known organic mecha from the 1980’s, based on Yoshiyuki Tomino’s work and ideas.


Dunbine’s appearance is based on a humanoid insect. It has a largely curvy body with visible bone white claws. While its colouring isn’t anything out of the ordinary, considering the time, but one of the main points it has for it are the yellow insect wings it has on its back. All that gives is a distinct feeling from previous Tomino’s works, all of which largely used industrial cubic shapes.

Another 80’s mecha that is more or less organic in design is Iczer-Robo.


Iczer-Robo is a relatively early example of a bionic being, composed of both mechanical and biological components. It’s outer appearance has flowing smooth lines, but do carry certain industrial vibes. It is between the two, but inside it is very much organic. We even see Iczer Sigma’s birth in the series in a giant tank without any of its armour, basically saying that Iczer-1’s robot are not as much build as they are grown. In many ways, Evangelion’s concept of having an organic being in an armour restraints controlled by a human inside a cockpit surrounded by a liquid is nothing new, as Iczer-Robo did it first.

To directly contrast Dunbine, let’s go with the King of GMs, Ideon.


Ideon is such a strange design at first, especially when you consider it is formed of three separate units. At first, it’s not particularly pretty mecha to look at, but it grows on you. It’s follows the archetype of a blocky mecha as its body can be broken down to cubic geometrical shapes very easily. Drawing a very rough sketch with just boxes is very easy and good practice. It’s completely opposite to Dunbine’s shapes. Some years later, Makoto Kobayashi actually designed and built an organic Ideon model, and while that is more directly organic being, the contrast is striking.


The contrast between the two is striking, but both are the same core design, just in different style. Not only did it lose pretty much all of its boxiness, but also lost mass here and there. Some elements were changed to fit primordial god theme slightly more, which is evident of its slightly grotesque appearance. Plain red was replaced with broken, earth red instead with the occasional blob of light grey and bright red at joints.

Maybe one of the most famous industrial looking robot in sub-culture is the one that was designed to look like an American car.


Robocop‘s ED-209 is an exceptional example of industrial designed mecha. It’s form follows the function and nothing is really unnecessary. The joints look robust and strong, mechanical. It’s colour is largely that dull gray with a blue hue with black governing top of the main body, red are spared for wires and weapon bits. Steel grey is evident from bits that require to look like bare steel, and you have that yellow-black striping showing what parts to be wary of. It’s a hulking beast that doesn’t have softness to it despite having curves. They’re all cold and designed, rather than organically stemming from the body. It’s a terrific, iconic design.

Of course, there are a lot of things you can do between organic and mechanical design, not just in looks but how the mecha act and move. Zoids are largely designed to look like industrial machines, but their organic nature comes from them acting like animals instead of machines. Shield Liger for example moves like a real big cat and all the joints and the like are designed to accommodate this despite it’s overall industrial look. Just look this PV of MasterPiece-01 Shield Liger and how they made the model itself move.

I’m rather impressed on how they got the side parts to move like it was breathing or moving muscles around

As you can see, you can mix organic and mechanical together rather large degree for various kinds of effects. Just like with every other post in this mecha design series, the best way to look into this is to study actual existing examples. For organic, it’s the body structure and shapes of real life creatures that you could use to make a giant robot. For industrial design it’s much easier, as there are numerous books going over that topic.

Real world is a very good source for examples to learn from, instead of looking into existing mecha design. Modelling a mecha after something real and giving it a mechanical twist, but perhaps in an organic fashion, can lead to interesting and great designs. Or just nab a fighter jet plane and use its elements to make a whole tech three of giant robots.