Introduction: 123D Fab! Cardboard Construction Kit

About: Artist in Residence at Pier 9, currently exploring a vast array of new tools with which to injure myself.
This is the story of how I designed a cardboard construction kit and how a bunch of very clever people at Autodesk University 2011 used it to make things far cooler than I could ever have anticipated. I'll discuss the backstory of the construction kit, my thought process in designing it and what happened when it was unleashed on a test audience of designers, architects and engineers.

The kit itself consists of an assortment of laser-cut cardboard pieces that can slot together in a regular, geometric fashion to form complex and weird structures. While the simplest components of the kits are just circles with slotted rims, the kits also contain a wide variety of decorative pieces (e.g. wings, hands, mustaches), mechanical components (e.g. wheels, gears, levers) and structural units (e.g. long beams, "peanut" shapes, semicircles) which can all be combined in countless ways. So far, I've seen people make some amazing things - machines, sculptures, monsters, vehicles, buildings, furniture and even a primitive programmable computer - just using pre-cut cardboard and some 1/4" wooden dowel.

Here's one example of something that can be made with the kit, which is now available on the Instructables Store:

Not convinced? These are some reasons why I think this kit makes a great toy:
  • Modular and expandable design: Like Lego or K'NEX, there's no limit to the size or complexity of what you can build.
  • Simplicity with depth: Even a toddler could make something fun from the kit, but older kids and adults (i.e big kids) with an artistic or engineering mindset will be able to make rather spectacular creations.
  • Incredibly low material cost: Corrugated cardboard costs next to nothing. If you have access to a laser cutter, this is practically a free toy.
  • Entirely recyclable pieces: When you're done with it, just recycle or compost it.
  • Renewable parts: If a component becomes damaged, it's quick and cheap to cut out a new one and recycle the old one.
  • Open source design: I've included all of the kit's specifications so that people can design their own pieces. I'd love to see how others expand on this basic simple toy. My dream would be to see this develop as a community project, with people all over the world adding their own new pieces to the collective toy box.
  • Hacker-friendly: One of the things I love about this as a toy is that it discourages any attitude of reverence towards its components. All the pieces are replaceable cardboard, so people automatically feel comfortable modifying and corrupting the original pieces. If you're afraid of breaking a toy, you'll never really be playing with it to its fullest.
See? Wouldn't that be a fun thing to give to a classroom full of bright young minds?

Step 1: The Backstory

Autodesk University is an annual conference and exhibition dedicated to getting people together to discuss the latest advances in the world of design, specifically in relation to Autodesk and its products. It's a hectic week-long event populated by anyone who's at all interested in cutting edge industrial design geekery (about 8,000 people in total).

Every year at Autodesk University, some kind of contest is held in which the attendees can show off their design prowess and win some pretty snazzy prizes. For Autodesk University 2011, I helped organize the 123D Fab! Challenge, a contest intended to promote awareness of the Autodesk's new 123D software family.

My brief was to design some sort of toy which could be laser-cut from a few sheets of cardboard, allowed for some degree of creativity or personal expression, would capture the maker spirit, and would also incorporate the 123D brand identity.

Step 2: Inspirations

The idea of playing with interlocking discs to make modular structures is not a new one. As a kid I played with Tazos, simple pog-like toys that often featured slots around their edges for assembly. A little bit of probing online revealed much larger versions of the same basic idea being used as art installations.

I really appreciated the simplicity and flexibility of this type of toy, so I decided to build on it by giving it a wider range of components as well as holes in each disc for rods and axles.

Step 3: Design Process

With the core concept of interlocking discs decided upon, I started making a few rough sketches to see what else came to mind. I wanted to add the possibility of moving pieces to what was quite a static system. I realized that any larger pieces would have to be carefully sized so that they still fit in with the interlocking scheme of the smaller pieces. Similarly, I made sure that the different beams and levers had their holes positioned so that they would align with any other holes in an assembled cardboard lattice.

Here are some of the early sketches I made, as well as some tidied versions that eventually became part of the instruction leaflet for the finished kit.

I used Adobe Illustrator to precisely measure and draw most of the pieces.

As kit this was intended to raise awareness of Autodesk's 123D software family, I incorporated some pieces that had been made by Autodesk blogger Shaan Hurley using 123D Make. Shaan took a 3D version of the 123D logo and sliced it into different levels, creating a contour map effect. One of the stipulations of the 123D Fab! Challenge at Autodesk University was that each entry had to somewhere feature this 123D logo.

Step 4: The Final Kit

The final kit had a couple of hundred pieces and could be laser-cut from five 31" by 15" pieces of single-ply cardboard. You can see here how all of the gears, skis, legs and various other appendages all follow the same basic scheme of the simple discs.

I've included the EPS file of the whole kit here, so you can make your own. Please give it a try!

Step 5: Prototypes

Once I'd made my first test kit, I sat down and had a play with it. To my delight, it was fun! I actually sat and played with the kit well into the night to see what kind of things I could make. Here are a few of my early designs.

The "fan sled" shown here is now available as a kit on the Instructables Store.

Step 6: The Games Are Afoot

At Autodesk University, the competitors had three days to distill their packs of cardboard components into batches of pure awesome-sauce. It was lovely to see so many seemingly respectable adults instantly regress to a state of child-like playfulness when they were given a big box of construction pieces.

With the a MakerBot 3D printer, $500 of Ponoko vouchers and an iPod Touch as the first prizes, you can see why so many people chose to spend their evenings frantically tinkering with their kits.

As well as using the basic kits they were given, the contestants were encouraged to incorporate extra materials such as LEDs, feathers, string and whatever else they could find in the convention center.

Step 7: Finalists

We had about forty entries to the 123D Fab! Challenge in total. The competition was extremely fierce, but eventually the judging panel selected the following winners:

1st Place: Michael von Hamel - the photo here does not do justice to this incredible machine. When you turned the crank on the front, gears and wheels all over the structure turned. At the same time, different electrical circuits would be broken and completed, causing a series of lights to flash. Very clever stuff.

2nd Place: Neil Wakeman - Neil's decision to use every last scrap of material, including the packaging of the cardboard pieces, in this beautiful and elaborate sculpture won him $500 of Ponoko vouchers.

3rd Place: Joanne Massey - a seasonal favorite, this showed off the maker spirit by incorporating a crocheted Santa and LEDs.

Runners-up: Pete Migrin and Olle Wranne - Migrin's whimsical lamp and Wranne's elegant reindeer were both aesthetically wonderful.

A special trebuchet category was introduced to the contest for an impromptu war between Dennis Martin's and Nathan Howe's cardboard siege engines.

Step 8: Other Entries

I was extremely pleased with the high standard of the entries. Here, in no particular orders, are some of the other things people made.

Step 9: More Entries

Step 10: Even More Entries

Step 11: The Future

All in all, the 123D Fab! Challenge was a huge success. Everyone had fun and I think we succeeded in getting people thinking about using cardboard as a construction material.

What I'd really love to see is people picking up this idea and running with it as a community. If you think you (or someone you know) would enjoy this kit, then download the designs and laser-cut your own pieces (or buy the kits from our store). Better yet, design your own pieces and upload them to Instructables!

Wouldn't it be nice to live in a world where people can not only download their toys from the internet, but upload and share their own modifications to create an organically growing toy library?

Yes. Yes, it would.

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