Over the last six months, we explored a variety of tinkering activities for a LEGO pull-string motor through a collaboration with partners from LEGO Idea Studio (Amos Blanton, Liam Nilsen), Care for Education (Brent Hutcheson and Duncan Beaton), and Quarterre (Nick Mannion). The motor has a variety of possible building points: a hole for a LEGO Technic axle, a disk with LEGO studs, and more studs throughout the body of the motor. The pull string activates the spinning axle and disk, no power required. We honed in on two activities: critters and their environments and automata.
In this activity, we asked participants to create sculptural kinetic contraptions made from LEGO and everyday craft materials. They use linkages and a pull-string motor as the foundation for movement, and animate a story, scene, or character with the addition of materials like paper, feathers, or googly eyes. If you're interested in trying something similar, LEGO offers a wind-up motor that offers similiar functionality.
For building a LEGO automata, we like to use a combination of LEGO Techic pieces and craft materials. The Technic pieces form the "skeleton" of the automata's structure and movement. We've found the craft pieces to be important to support the narrative component of creating a LEGO Automata sculpture. Learners are able to personalize their creation by drawing or collaging additional elements. Some learners even use these materials to provide additional mechanical pieces as well! Paper is an especially effective material because it is lightweight and can sit between beam-and-pin constructions and move flexibly.
Building the Pull-String Motor Base & Linkage Support
To get started, use double stick tape to attach your base plate to a thin sheet of plywood for additional support. This will allow you to move or lift your sculpture without it bending or breaking.
Next, build a base for your pull-string motor to raise its height. We like using an alternating pattern of two-2x6 bricks, then three-2x4 bricks, then repeating two-2x6 bricks. This pattern provides stability when pulling the string. You may also choose to super glue these bricks to the motor, and super glue the whole assembly to the base (with the pull-string going off the edge). The resistance of the spring inside the motor is powerful and can pull your creation apart if you’re not careful. If you don’t want to glue the pieces together, be sure to remember to hold the motor in place with your hand every time you pull the string.
For the crank, use an axle 6 through the motor with a LEGO Beam 2x4 Bent 90 degrees (2 and 4 holes) on one side and a bushing on the other to hold it in place. The L-shaped beam should spin smoothly when you activate the motor, but not wiggle back and forth too much.
For making your linkage, it’s helpful to have an additional vertical support. We like to use three-2x4 LEGO technic plates with holes stacked on top of each other attached to a LEGO Cross Block Beam Bent 90 degrees with 4 pins. Attach a 16-hole beam to the remaining two pins. You may choose to glue this assembly together as well, but don’t glue it to the base plate. You’ll want to be able to move it later as you build your linkage.
Tinker with Making a Linkage
Linkages can take many shapes and forms. For building your LEGO Automata, start by attaching two 16-hole beams at one end with a gray connector pin. Use the gray pins to attach a one beam to your L-shaped crank and the other to your vertical support. As you put these pieces together, have a look from above to make sure things are lined up in even planes and not pulling backwards or forwards.
Activate the motor (don’t forget to hold it when you pull the string!) and notice what happens. How are the beams moving? Can they move freely, or is there a point where they get stuck? This is the point in the process where you can really start tinkering! Notice what changes when you reconfigure the pieces. Some things you can try are:
Changing where your beam is attached to the L-shaped crank
Changing where the two beams meet (end-to-end, T-intersection, or crossed)
Changing where the second beam attaches to the vertical support
Changing the distance of the vertical support from the motor (making it closer or farther away)
Experimenting with the length of the beams
Most importantly, remember that linkages are tricky! They take time and iteration to troubleshoot, and often will move in ways you don’t expect. Over time, you’ll get the hang of figuring out how to make them move the way you want them to.
LEGO is an especially useful material for tinkering with linkages because it allows for iteration in the design process. As you build you can track what different positions and configurations you’ve tried, and it’s easy to go back and undo those changes if you’d like to revisit an earlier idea. While that’s still a possibility with materials like cardboard and wire, undoing a change can be much more challenging.
Here are a few starting points: you can make linkages that move up and down, swing back and forth, or open and close like a pair of scissors. When facilitating this activity for a group of learners, we like to have many possible starting point linkages already built, and encourage learners to start experimenting by making changes to the existing structures.
As you gain comfort with how your linkage moves, you can add complexity by building on secondary movements or adding angled or extension pieces to exaggerate the motion.
DESIGN YOUR ANIMATED SCULPTURE
As you’re building, you may ask yourself, “What does this motion remind me of?” Could it be a person waving an arm? A boat on the sea? The snapping jaws of an alligator? The possibilities are endless! Alternately, you can consider what story you want to tell and how you can use the linkages in your LEGO Automata to add motion to that story. When working with construction paper, you can create individual elements to add onto your linkage or create more complex jointed pieces. Double sided tape is helpful for attaching pieces to beams or onto the base plate. Brads and small hole punches can also add jointed motion. You may also choose to add feathers, googly eyes, or other craft materials to give your creation personality.
Take it Further
Automata and linkages can be made out of many different materials and in many different sizes. You can explore using cardboard, foam, trash, wire, and wood for making the core of your automata design. You can also play around with scale to see how big or small you can make them. You can even try alternating between 2D and 3D designs for what you create.
This project was made possible through the generous support from the LEGO Foundation