Mini Fan The Flame

10/01/2012 | Installations

Ever since I first heard about the Arduino project in 2008, I was waiting for a challenging project with this cool piece of hardware. That challenge finally came in December of 2011.

1. Technical study

The location of this installation was to be the parking of the bi-annual car trade show in  Brussels. The location is very relevant, with more then 30.000 visitors of the trade show potentially walking past the installation every day. That also meant the deadline was only 4 weeks away. At this stage the people of TBWA still needed to convince MINI and the organizers of the trade show, this installation could be build, and preferably, be safe to operate for everybody. So first I did a technical study of this setup.

We needed:

  • a car on a ramp
  • a unit that produces fire, connected to the internet
  • a rope that can hold the car, but that can break after a certain time
  • the rope is firmly attached to a frame so that it is horizontally positioned
  • a second cable it connected to the car to check if the car is still connected
  • camera’s so everybody can see the flame live at home
  • to make sure the unit doesn’t go up in flames every now and then…

Lacking a 3D model from the Mini, this Nissan Pickup did the job just as well.

The height of the rope or flame can be adjusted, depending on the number of fans. The burner unit should be protected from the burning rope.

And a few extra’s: The installation is in open air, in the middle of winter. It has to stay operational for at least 14 days with minimal intervention or maintenance.

Luckily this plan got the approval from everybody involved so we could get to work.
I became responsible for the production of the burn-unit and the construction of the rope. Both these elements are closely linked since we didn’t want the contest to be over after the first few burns. We needed a visibly powerful flame, and a rope strong enough to endure the fire for long enough.

2. Electronics

It was clear Arduino was the way to go. It is connected to the internet. The unit receives burn-commands and ignites the flame. It also sends back info on the status of the unit. (is the car still connected? is there fire or water in the unit? )

So my Arduino gets an ethernet shield, a thermocouple and connections to the other in- and outputs.

It helps to plan the layout of different buttons and switches.

3. Burn unit construction

Next the unit needed protection from the winter elements.

And finally putting everything together.

The electronics are protected by a flame deflector, with a gutter to gather burning pieces of rope. On top you can see the electronic Bunsen burner that was rigged to be operated by the Arduino. In front the gas container, which was later replaced by a larger container.

In the meantime all of 2011 was almost over, and it was new years eve. So it was time to reassure the clients that everything was on schedule and we would have an operating installation in 7 days. (although there were still many sleepless nights ahead)

Below you can watch the video I sent to the clients on 31/12/2011 17:00 pm. (dutch)

4. Rope construction

Parallel with the electronics, an even more challenging task was the production of the rope. We didn’t want the rope snapped after half a day, but preferably before the beginning of spring 2012. Metal would have been a very predictable material, but the burner was not powerful enough. During the pauses between burns, the metal would cool again. I tested all kinds of plastic ropes, but in the end the answer lay with natural fiber. These fibers never melt, and are very durable. The best of all turned out to be hemp rope.

The problem with a natural fiber is that you are not 100% sure of it’s strength, on every cm of rope. So I twisted 4 12mm ropes together to balance the load. This also made a much thicker rope, which was more aesthetically pleasing and that way the flame had more meat to shew on. I had to try dozens of techniques to get to a reasonable result. Medieval stuff…

Then testing began. Night and day the burner unit kept spewing flames at the different rope constructions, to determine the right kind of twist. I was still testing ropes when we were already constructing the installation at the car show…

5. On Site !

Then the big day came. Everything came together. The website was launched. The guys from did an excellent job, to make sure all these thousands of people could push a virtual button online, to trigger the burn unit on site.

The elements weren’t too kind to my burn unit. There were planned maintenance moments every other day, before the break of dawn. There were mornings when I had to scrape the ice of the unit.

But in the end, it just kept doing it’s job. All 28.956 burns, for 12 days in a row, day and night, until finally…

This is the story of MINI Fan The Flame from my part. That part was mainly technical, the Concept and Art Direction was all by the hand of the talented creatives from and TBWA. Many people were involved in this project, and all were essential to make this happen. Not the least the guys that made this back-end website.

For the agencies TBWA and this case promises to become a big success. The original target number of fans on Facebook was already reached in the first days of the campaign, and it went past 21.000 fans, in just 2 weeks! The case will continue to draw attention in 2012. Watch the case movie by TBWA/ below.