Introduction: Sparklab - Invent a Device That Can Move Through a Pipe

About: Spark!Lab is a hands -on invention studio in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Spark!Lab activities communicate that invention is a process, rather than a single “Aha!” moment; provide vi…

Welcome to Spark!Lab digital. This is an online invention space where you get to be the inventor. There are no wrong answers, and you can create an invention using the pieces provided — or create some pieces of your own. Think like an inventor: how does your design solve a problem?

Invent a device that can move through a pipe with these virtual materials — or create your own parts and pieces. Using Tinkercad, you can delete, reshape, duplicate, and create new parts.


  • Free Tinkercad account
  • Inventive creativity
  • "Invent a Device That Can Move Through a Pipe" parts from the Tinkercad website

Step 1: Invention Is a Process

There are just two things to keep in mind as you invent your pipe exploring device:

1. The invention process is not always linear, but inventors engage in these steps in some form or another:

  • Think it: Have a great idea for an invention
  • Explore it: Investigate inventions and ideas of the past
  • Sketch it: Draw pictures and diagrams to figure out how your invention might work
  • Create it: Build a prototype or model of your idea
  • Try it: Test your invention
  • Tweak it: Keep improving your idea
  • Sell it: Market your invention to people who might buy it

2. We also know everyone is inventive — and we do mean everyone! Today, you become the inventor. You will try new ideas, take risks, and learn how to keep going when things don’t go as planned.

Step 2: Think It

The first step of the invention process is to "think it," meaning to identify a problem you would like to solve and begin to imagine your solution.

What is the problem you are trying to solve?

What type of device could travel through the inside of a pipe. What would that look like? What types of things would it do while inside of the pipe -clean, inspect, repair?

Step 3: Explore It

The next step of the invention process is to "explore it.” Inventors ask: “How have inventors solved this problem in the past?” and then conduct research to learn more about the problem they want to solve or to understand solutions that already may exist. They learn from what others have already tried and make sure that their solutions are new or different.

Pipes are all around us. They can carry and move water, fuel, gases, or waste so that we can do many daily activities—at home, school, work, and even here at the museum! We have to, inspect and look inside of pipes to check up on them and keep them working. Checking inside means that important liquids and gases will be there when we need them.

Learn more about pipe inspection and pipe service inventions:

Click here to learn about a pipe inspection robot created by researchers at MIT and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.

Click here to find out more about a snake-like pipeline explorer, created by the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) at Carnegie Mellon University.


The Lemelson Center gratefully acknowledges support from ConocoPhillips for this pipeline innovation activity.

Step 4: Sketch It

Inventors use sketching as a way to organize their ideas.

Drawing an idea allows inventors to imagine what their invention might look like and how it will work. Try sketching out your invention before building! Take some time to sketch your ideas, images, and thoughts about what a device that can move through a pipe might look like.

You can sketch your ideas with paper and pencil, or you can try using a digital format. Remember! Inventors rarely get it right on the first try. Whatever the method, you may need to erase and re-draw your invention as you continue to think through how you want to solve the problem.

Click here to learn more about inventors' sketches in the Smithsonian Collection.

Step 5: Create It

Now it is time to build a prototype of your invention idea. In this step, inventors get to see their idea turn into something real. Building a model can also help you learn about any issues there are with their invention design. Your prototype will show the size, shape, and form of your pipe exploring device.

How can you use these virtual materials to design an invention that can move through a pipe? What will your invention do while inside the pipe - inspect, clean, repair? How will you make sure that your invention can get through both straight and curved sections of pipe?

Click here to go to the Tinkercad site where you can create an invention that can move through a pipe.

Once you have created your design, move on to the next step in the invention process, Try It!

Step 6: Try It

Now that you have created your 3D model, take some time to imagine how your pipe explorer might work in different pipelines - sewer, water, gas, air.

  • What size is your pipe exploring invention?
  • What will propel your device?
  • Will your device be able to move through a pipe filled with liquid?
  • Can your device clean the pipe?
  • Does your invention have a camera?
  • What is the power source for your invention?
  • Would your invention be robotic or remote controlled?
  • How will your invention make turns inside of the pipe?
  • Is there a way for your invention to remove clogs it finds in a pipe?
  • Does your invention have tools that can be used to repair a pipe from the inside?

Share your 3D model and ideas with others. Ask them for their input about your design.

  • What did they like best about your design?
  • What did they think needed improving?
  • What new ideas did you get by sharing your idea with them?

Step 7: Tweak It

Now that you’ve created your pipe exploring invention, thought about how it would work, and shared your idea with others, it’s time to tweak your invention! Now is the time to ask yourself, "What changes can I make to improve my invention that moves through a pipe?”

Inventors typically don't succeed with an invention on the first try. Inventors make changes to their prototypes to make them work better. Usually, they tweak their idea many times before it is finished. Once tweaks are made, inventors test their inventions again. It can take many tries to get it right.

Go back to your design in Tinkercad and tweak it to allow your invention to both explore and clean the inside of a pipe.

Step 8: Sell It

The final step of the invention process is to sell your idea. Selling your invention is not only about putting it up for sale. Selling an idea often happens when you share your idea with others after you have made your final tweaks.

Tell us about your invention on social media:

  • Who will use your invention?
  • What makes your invention unique?
  • How does your invention work?

We want to hear from you! Follow us on Instagram at @si_invention or Facebook @lemelsoncenter and use the hashtag #sparklab on your posts.