Introduction: Design of Automata

Picture of Design of Automata

Modern automata are crank driven mechancial sculptures that show some sort of object in motion. The design of these machines can be very complex, and requires a lot of experience. However, by the help of computer design software it is possible to make the process much easier. Over the course of several years, I have refined the design process so that models of automata can be made very fast.

Step 1: Software

The softwares used in the design process are:

  • Solidworks
  • SAM Mechanism Designer
  • Ghost-it

I used Solidworks for this example, but any software that allows for drawing of shapes and adding constraints are fine.

SAM Mechanism Designer is used for initial prototyping, as it is very fast for these type of tasks. The software is not free, but a demo version is available at:

Ghost-it is used for seemless transition between the other two programs. It can overlay one program window on top of an other, much like tracing paper or a lightbox. This eliminates the process of export and import and makes is possible to use the best features from both software packages. On top of that, it is free!

Step 2: Reference Material

Picture of Reference Material

Every good automata begins with good reference material. The reference material should contain information about shape and motion. Good sources of reference material for automata are:

  • Video
  • Photography
  • Animated .gifs
  • Medical or technical drawings

In this example I will use an animated .gif of Pikachu as my reference material. I found it via Google Images by limiting the results to animated images. Animated .gifs are great because they contain only the most important positions in order to describe the motion.

Step 3: Mechanization: the Basics

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The 4-bar linkage forms the basis of planar linkage mechanisms. It will transform circular motion into oscillatory motion and is the simplest planar linkage you can make.

Degrees of Freedom (DOF)

Degrees of freedom is a term that tells in how many indepentent ways a mechanism can move, or the least number of coordinates needed to describe the system.

Automata usually have one degree of freedom. If the crank is turned, all the other parts will move in a prescribed fashion. It can be shown mathematically that in order to achieve this, the total number of links has to be an even number.

Including the ground link, it can be seen that the 4-bar linkage has one degree of freedom. Subsequently, if two more links are added to a 4-bar linkage, we get a 6-bar linkage which also has one DOF. This way, a more complex machine can be created; simply by adding more and more links.

Step 4: SAM Mechanism Designer

Picture of SAM Mechanism Designer

SAM is good for initial design of mechanisms.

  1. Draw links with the 'Create beam element' tool.
  2. Fix joints with the 'Fix node in X- and/or Y-direction' tool.
  3. Add motor by clicking on 'Angle Input Motion' and selecting the driving element.
  4. Right click > 'Show path' to trace the position of a point.
  5. Reposition joints to achieve the motion you want.

As you can see, it is a super-fast way to experiment with linkages. It is also possible to make many other types of joints, gears, belts, etc.

Step 5: Start Simple!

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Start simple! Here I started by making Pikachu's body rock back and forth with the help of a 4-bar linkage. Remember that the links can have any shape or form, it is the position of the joints that determine the behavior of the mechanism. You can make the links have different shapes by adding elements to it so that it forms a rigid triangle. For instance, I sketched out the position of the hip joint by adding two beam elements.

Step 6: Head

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I made the head move by adding two more links between the body and ground. This forms a 4-bar linkage (parallelogram) so that Pikachu's head will stay parallel with the ground.

Step 7: Front Leg

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Similarly, I added two more links to make the front leg:

  • I changed the shape of the main body to locate the shoulder joint.
  • Then I drew the leg, represented by a triangle.
  • Finally, I added the link between the leg and ground.

Step 8: Rear Leg

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Similarly, two more links were added to make the rear leg.

Step 9: Rear Foot

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Finally, I added the two last links which formed the rear foot.

Step 10: Solidworks Layout

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For creating a more detailed design, I will now switch to Solidworks. Solidworks has a feature called 'Layout' wich allows the user to create a layout of an assembly.

  1. File > New > Assembly.
  2. On the left hand side, click on 'Create Layout' in the yellow box.

Step 11: Sketch

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  1. Trace the mechanism from SAM into Solidworks.
  2. Click on each element and create a block.
  3. Add contraints such as 'coincident' or 'anchor'.

Repeat the process for all of the links.

Step 12: Taking Shape

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Each block can be edited to that they look more like the real thing. Use the original reference and trace the shape of each part. Make sure to have the correct level of zoom while tracing.

Step 13: Results

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The design of the running Pikachu took less than 90 minutes, but it will of course depend on your experience and the complexity of the automata. Try it out yourself!

Step 14: Appendix

3D files, along with templates for the pikachu automaton can be found here:


EvanY6 made it! (author)2017-09-16

I pasted templates to cardboard and cut using scissors and used tooth picks for Assembly.

Arild Amland (author)EvanY62017-09-17

No way! That's super cool, man! Well done!

Arild Amland made it! (author)2016-06-28

I made the Pikachu automaton by printing out the part drawings, gluing it on a piece of plywood, and then cutting it with a scroll saw. No issues with the assembly.

itsame (author)Arild Amland2017-02-28

How'd you assemble it? Could you please put a tutorial for that maybe soon? Thanks

Arild Amland (author)itsame2017-02-28

3D files and templates can be found here:

I suggest you open the 3D assembly file and look at which part goes where. It's a bit tricky, but totally doable.

s158786938 made it! (author)2017-01-10

Thanks for the design!!! I'm a Pikachu lover and just made it. It moves!!!

Check out this video:

Arild Amland (author)s1587869382017-01-10

Looking good! :-D

andrea biffi (author)2016-11-09

wow... gourgeous!

XTL (author)2016-08-29

Consider using the free software "Linkage" to do the mechanism design. Works very well IMHO.

Also here: -

I use Inkscape for the shape design if 2D, or OpenSCAD or Wings3D if 3D needed.

Tutorials here:

mrDougall (author)XTL2016-10-19

Looks good - thanks.

LauraMelnik (author)2015-05-19

Wow the software is really cool, but 2k is a bit steep !!! Love the design, voted for
It, but can't afford the software. :(

Arild Amland (author)LauraMelnik2015-05-19

Yeah, I know. I wish they would make it affordable. I have only used the demo version of SAM so far.

LauraMelnik (author)Arild Amland2015-05-19

The demo version let you do the animation too? or did you do that part in solidworks (not cheap either)

Arild Amland (author)LauraMelnik2015-05-19

It will animate when the windmill icon is pressed. The reason I use SAM is that it is very fast to draw and see how the mechanisms work. A lot of other programs have the same features, e.g. Solidworks, but are often slow, or not very user-friendly when it comes to this specific task. Unfortunately you can not save your work in the demo version, but you can however export as .dxf.

As a student, I have always had access to a high-end CAD tool, but you can probably find free CAD tools that will do the same thing. You could always draw each individual part based on the design made in SAM. Then just refine the shapes and assemble the parts.

I made the animation by taking screenshots in Solidworks at fixed intervals and combining them into an animated .gif.

jjcasalo (author)2015-05-18

Such a nice Instructable ! I discovered something today.

Thanks a lot. And I loved the thief automata.

goldenshuttle (author)2015-05-18

Thank you for the great post. automata in some ways is a main ancestor of robots. Yet it never loses its magic. I think a free software like PHUN-Algodoo is a great free automata practice & development software. BTW:which one you think is best to give you cutting blueprints or MTO

DalaisLlama (author)2015-05-17


NathanSellers (author)2015-05-17

Very impressive. I'd love to see it completed and moving.

seamster (author)2015-05-17

Great info, thank you!

I've always been fascinated by automata, and planned to get into it at some point. Creating the designs digitally makes a whole lot more sense than doings so through trial and error. Thank you again for sharing this!

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