Idea: An Open Source Construction Toy

I’ve always enjoyed building things, even when I was a child. One of my clearest memories of childhood is the long hours I spent playing with Tinker Toys, Erector Sets, LEGOs, and even Lincoln Logs.

Unfortunately, some of these toys are no longer on the market, as they are now considered too dangerous for young children — I recall that the Erector Set in particular had sharp edges and tiny screws.

Another evolution that I’ve observed over the years is the tendency for building blocks to become more specialized towards constructing specific designs, and less able to function as a tool for generalized creative expression. This can be seen most strongly in the LEGO product line, where virtually all LEGO kits sold are now tied to a particular media franchise such as Star Wars or Batman. The kits now consist largely of oddly-shaped components that are good for building one particular vehicle. Trying to make arbitrary constructions, inventions, and original works of art out of these kits is a difficult puzzle, and likely beyond the ingenuity of the average kid.

I’ve also noticed that these kits tend to be assembled once and then placed on the shelf as display pieces, rather than being disassembled and re-used in other projects. While this may be a great way for the toy company to sell more bricks, it means that from a consumer standpoint, you don’t get a lot of fun for your buck. And it doesn’t foster creativity, which is the aspect that I am most interested in.

There’s another disappointing aspect to modern construction toys, which is that they are not very strong or sturdy. For example, LEGOs bricks are pressed together and are held fast by friction. Large constructions tend to be fragile compared something like Knex or Mechano. Thus, you can’t really build a dynamic machine such as a trebuchet out of LEGOs. This limits the kind of inventions that a creative youngster can feasibly attempt.

Also, the designs of LEGO are tightly controlled by one company. Attempting to design a toy that is mechanically compatible is legally perilous, something that I know because of my friendship with the creators of Pixel Blocks.

So what can we do about this?

With the advent of inexpensive 3D printing, it seems that there should be room in the world for a construction toy which allows people to create their own building blocks.

The basic idea is this: there would be an open standard that defines the mechanics of how the parts connect together. Anyone would be allowed to manufacture components that adhere to this standard; this includes both individuals and companies. The advantage of following the standard is that it ensures that the parts that you make will be mechanically compatible with parts made by other people.

I imagine that if this were to become popular, a typical construction would be a mix of cheap, generic “commodity” parts, with a few specialized, custom-made parts. In fact, different manufacturers could specialize in different materials or application domains such as robotics, illumination, art, or aeronautics (drones, in other words).

I can even imagine an online marketplace, or face-to-face meetups, where enthusiasts would meet to exchange parts, collaborate on projects, and show off their creations.

In my vision, the mechanical design would have the following properties:

  • Strong tensile strength and joints. A bridge or truss made up of these parts should be capable of supporting substantial loads. Although I am not a mechanical designer, I’ve thought perhaps a ‘twist-lock’ connector design might be a useful compromise between press-fit connectors and screws.
  • Simple enough that a five-year-old should have no problem building with it (so in other words, no specialized tools required).
  • Able to operate at different scales. As I conceive it, there would be perhaps five different standard scales labeled “A” through “E”, each one twice as big as the previous. Thus, the parts from the “B” set would be exactly twice the size of the “A” set in all dimensions, and there would be adapters that would allow A and B parts to be connected together.
  • Allow a diverse selection of geometries. At minimum, it should allow something like a rectangular truss with diagonal bracing. Unfortunately, it’s probably not mechanically possible to create something that would support both rectangular structures and mathematical structures such as dodecahedrons or geodesic domes — not without compromising strength anyway.
  • Have a diverse selection of decorative elements and panels.
  • Able to be made from different materials. Most of the time the parts would be made from plastic, but some parts might be made of metal.
  • Should support attachments for wheels, gears, motors, axles, belts and other moving mechanical parts.

One temptation that should be avoided is printing parts that are too specialized. It’s probably more fun for a kid to figure out how to build a catapult or go-cart out of generic components than it is assembling one out of parts that are specially designed for that one application. But to do this, the generic parts have to be sufficiently adaptable to various purposes.

In fact, what makes a construction toy a “toy”, as opposed to being merely a construction material, is the additional level of challenge involved in taking parts that are not perfectly adapted to a particular problem domain, and coming up with ingenious ways to make them work anyway.

In any case, this is not something that I have the skill to design. But it is something that I would dearly like to see.

I’m not a mad scientist. I’m a mad natural philosopher.