Mechanical Breadboard &

Modular Construction Systems

A Brief Survey

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1. Introduction

This is a brief, incomplete survey of a variety of "mechanical breadboarding" and mechanically-oriented modular construction systems. I've been interested in these for years (I mean, they're all kinds of fun), but put this list together when making the decisions in developing my own mechanical breadboarding and modular construction specification .

It overlaps with the field of construction toys. In fact, I would argue that Meccano, nominally a toy, was the most successful mechanical breadboard system ever (it would take the title of most successful modular construction system easily, were it not for Lego).

I'll group the various systems surveyed by type (considered a bit loosely, as a system which is mostly of one type might well have components appropriate to another type). Other possible groupings might have included original audience (e.g., childrens' toy vs. professional engineer), intellectual property (proprietary vs. open source), or success (from household name like Lego to forgotten like Juneero).

Other Resources:

The subject has a small but not unimportant Bibliography. Special note should be made of the one academic thesis on this subject, {Mikes 2006}.

Beyond this, there are a number of less well known resources of considerable interest. These include:

Another place to research would be the frequently elaborate 19th and early 20th century systems for teaching basic mechanics in physics.

2. Regular Hole-Pattern Systems

Meccano

Pride of place here must go to Meccano. It was developed as a toy, but has been used for engineering and science demonstration models of astonishing sophistication. It has a vast literature. For a few links and pointers, see the Meccano Notebook within the the CircuitousRoot Notebooks on Construction toys . For a very brief technical survey, I find a 1995 article by the well-known programmer, maker, and writer Jeff Duntemann to be useful: "The Metal Construction Set FAQ (Slanted Toward Robotics Enthusiasts Rether than Collectors)" http://www.arrickrobotics.com/erector.txt . (Here is a local copy of it: duntemann-metal-construction-set-faq-meccano-erector-exacto-temsi-marklin-1995.txt)

Erector

Readers in the United States will be more familiar with our local derivative of Meccano, Gilbert's Erector. It also has a large literature, primarily among collectors.

MAKIT

From India. See http://www.makit.co.in/products.php

Masterbuilder

See the http://www.nzmeccano.com site -> Meccano Gallery -> Other Systems -> Masterbuilder.

Mignon

French Meccano-like. See the http://www.nzmeccano.com site -> Meccano Gallery -> Other Systems -> Mignon.

Primus Engineering

British. Very like Meccano. See the http://www.nzmeccano.com site.

Stokys

Stokys Systems AG. http://www.stokys.ch

Trix

Like Meccano, but with a diamond-pattern of holes. See http://www.trix-metaal.nl

Van/Ward/Roberts Pegboard

In some ways this is the cleverest system, simply because it is so simple. It just uses ordinary pegboard, in three dimensions. See {Van 2004}

3. Slotted-Plane Systems

W. M. Berg

This is what I'm calling a "slotted plane" system. See {Berg 1965}. This system was also cited in {Mikes 2006} as one of the few systems (then) commercially available. The W. M. Berg company no longer sells this system. Older issues of their brochures can still be obtained via The Wayback Machine at The Internet Archive, provided you know the original URL. See for example: "Precision Breadboard Kits" (4 page brochure, 2006) https://web.archive.org/web/20060315000000*/http://www.wmberg.com/catalog/pdf/b00d2-5.pdf

PIC Design (Slotted Plate)

There is some historical relationship between PIC Design and Berg (and both are slotted-plate systems), but I don't yet understand it. See for example http://pic-designcatalog.com/images/pdfcat/SECTION_10.PDF PIC Design is now selling a different system, the extruded-beam Pix Stix.

4. Rod Systems

There are two flavors of "rod systems": systems such as FAC which tend to employ grids and beams of longer rods to create frameworks, and systems such as Tinkertoys or CrossBeams which tend to use shorter end-connected rods to create both structural and figural constructions.

FAC

A rod-based construction system introduced in 1952 by Mark Sylwan of Sweden. It appears to me to be perhaps the best thought-out of the rod construction systems. The FAC company is still in business: http://www.facsystem.se/default_eng.asp Wilbert Swinkels' site has an overview of the FAC system and a number of reprints of its manuals at: http://wiswin.nl/FAC%20system.htm

The basis of the FAC system is a 4mm diameter rod, optionally threaded on its end. The basic spacing is 7mm, which allows 3mm screws to fit between pairs of rods. Pairs of metal plates with semicylindrical recesses for the rods are used to clamp rods into pairs and other configurations. There are also series of slotted plates and flat beams. (And of course there are gears, bearings, and other mechanical components.)

BOB

A British and French rod-based metal construction toy. From the look of the images I've seen, it would appear to be 1950s vintage. See the http://www.nzmeccano.com site -> Meccano Gallery -> Other Systems -> Bob.

Crossbeams

An end-connected rod construciton toy. See https://crossbeamstoy.com/static/index.html

K'Nex

A popular commercial rod-and-connector toy. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%27Nex and https://www.knex.com/

Tinkertoys

One of the classics. A wooden (at least traditionally) rod-and-connector construction system. Now owned by Hasbro, but see K'Nex: https://www.knex.com/tinkertoy

ZomeTool

Basically a geodesic Tinkertoy. I'm sure that neither Hasbro nor ZomeTool would like that description, though ZomeTool does acknowledge its debt to R. Buckminster Fuller. http://www.zometool.com/

Zoob Building Set

An end-connected rod toy. See https://www.alexbrands.com/pa_brand/zoob/

5. Extruded Beam Systems

80/20

A very complete structural system in the larger scale, based around slotted aluminum extrusions. See https://www.8020.net

Fischertechnik

This is a complex system which might easily be classified in other categories. But its basic block is in the form of an extruded beam. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fischertechnik and https://www.fischertechnik.de/en

MakerBeam

An extruded-beam form system. Formerly sold by Sparkfun; they have a retired-product listing at: https://www.sparkfun.com/products/retired/10540 which includes some technical data. Some of the component designs are online as STL at https://www.thingiverse.com/makerbeam/designs

PIX-STIX (PIC Design)

See http://pic-designcatalog.com/ and search for "Modular Framing Elements." Formerly PIC Design made slotted-plate systems (see "PIC Design (Slotted-Plate)," above).

6. Interconnecting Block Systems

Lego

If you didn't grow up on Lego then you have led a deprived life and need to rectify this immediately by buying the biggest set you can afford.

Duplo

Lego for the very young.

7. Stacking Block Systems

These are all very interesting, but they aren't really very useful for mechanical breadboarding or other engineering applications. But Froebel's blocks and the commercial Anchor Blocks are historically significant enough to merit at least a reference.

Froebel

(The block sets in Froebel's kindergarten "Gifts.")

Anchor

Artificial stone building blocks.

8. Theoretical Frameworks

These are especially useful because of their documentation. They almost always come with a Manifesto.

Le Corbusier's Modulor

As Wikipedia says very concisely, this is "an antropomorphic scale of proportions developed by the Swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier." See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modulor

OpenStructures

This is one of the more interesting modular schemes within the open-source community. Basically, it is based around a 4 cm square with fixed locations for connections. As I write this in 2018, their website is in flux (it disappeared as I was writing this, which is most annoying and hardly reassuring). See http://www.openstructures.net and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OpenStructures

9. Part-Shaping Toolkits

It is a sad comment upon the limited acceptance of "maker" culture within our society that these are the least well known of the systems surveyed.

Juneero

This is perhaps my favorite of these "part-shaping" systems simply because I happen to have one of its tools (saved from its fate in a dumpster). For more information on Juneero, see the CircuitousRoot Notebook on Juneero.

Manufax

Cutting and shaping pre-formed girders. See the http://www.nzmeccano.com site -> Meccano Gallery -> Other Systems -> Manufax.

N-G-Neero

See the http://www.nzmeccano.com site -> Meccano Gallery -> Other Systems -> N G Neero.

Prestacon

Very little is known about it. See the http://www.nzmeccano.com site.

10. Other

The Free Universal Construction Kit

This is a very interesting idea. It is a set of adapter bricks which allow the interconnection of ten children's construction toys (Lego, Duplo, Fischertechnik, Gears! Gears! Gears!, K'Nex, Krinkles ("Bristol Blocks" - they mean Bristle Blocks), Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys, Zomes [Zometools?], and Zoob. See: http://fffff.at/free-universal-construction-kit/ The designs for the components are available for free download and may be 3-D printed.

Gears! Gears! Gears!

I don't know much about this (or who makes it). It is one of the commercial construction sets interconnected by "The Free Universal Construction Kit" (q.v.)

Krinkles / Bristle Blocks

I don't know much about this (or who makes it). It probably really doesn't belong in this list, but it is one of the commercial construction sets interconnected by "The Free Universal Construction Kit" (q.v.)

Lincoln Logs

Dates from 1914. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincoln_Logs. Now owned by Hasbro, but see K'Nex: https://www.knex.com/lincoln-logs It probably really doesn't belong in this list, but it is one of the commercial construction sets interconnected by "The Free Universal Construction Kit" (q.v.)

11. Bibliography

{Berg 1961} Berg, Winfred M. "Breadboards Speed Electro-Mechanical Designs." Electronic Industries. (May 1961).

I have not yet read this. I know of it only through the Advertising Card page in {Berg 1965}.

{Berg 1965} Berg, Winfred M. The Theory and Application of Precision Mechanical Components. Second Edition. East Rockaway, NY: Russell E. Sacken, Inc., 1965.

Apart from one chapter on "Servo Breadboards," this book isn't about mechanical breadboards specifically but rather about mechanical component selection and use. However, the W. M. Berg company went on to produce a commercial slotted-plane breadboarding system that was available until recently; it was very much like the system described in this book. (The Berg company is still in business, producing components.)

This book has been scanned by bitsavers and is available via The Internet Archive at: https://archive.org/details/bitsavers_picDesignCApplicationofPrecisionMechanicalComponen_16569106

{DeDecker 2012} De Decker, Kris. Ed. Deva Lee. "How to Make Everything Ourselves: Open Modular Hardware." Article in the online Low-Tech Magazine, December 2012. http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2012/12/how-to-make-everything-ourselves-open-modular-hardware.html

{Mikes 2006} Mikes, James Andrew. The Analysis and Development of a Mechanical Breadboard Structure. [Thesis, Master of Science in Engineering] Austin, Texas: The University of Texas at Austin, December 2006.

This is online at UT Austin at: https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/32684, but access there is restricted. However, a freely available copy is online at the US Dept. of Defense's Defense Technical Information Center at: http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a461564.pdf

{Rosenberg 2014} Rosenberg, Joel. "Mechanincal Breadboards." Posting to the "stemeducationreferences" wiki. Begun July 31, 2014, last updated August 5, 2014; accessed 2018-02-03.

While this is a wiki posting that anyone might edit, at this time only Rosenberg has. It is online at: http://stemeducationreferences.pbworks.com/w/page/83556655/Mechanical%20Breadboards

{Wood 2000} Wood, John J. and Kristin L. Wood. "The Tinkerer's Pendulum for Machine System's [sic] Education: Creating a Basic Hands-On Environment with Mechanical 'Breadboards.'" Session 2566. Proceedings of the ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition. 2000.

This is more an educators' discussion of the use of mechanical breadboarding than a description of any particular system. My thanks to {Rosenberg 2014} for a fuller citation of this work. It is online at: http://www.sutd.edu.sg/cmsresource/idc/papers/2000-_The_Tinkerers_Pendulum_For_Machine_Systems_Education-_Creating_A_Basic_Hands_On_Environment_With_Mechanical_Breadboards.pdf

{Wood 2005} Wood, John, Matthew Campbell, Kristin Wood, and Dan Jensen. "Enhancing the Teaching of Machine Design by Creating a Basic Hands-On Environment with Mechanical 'Breadboards.'" International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education. Vol. 33, No. 1. (2005).

Like {Wood 2000}, this is more an educators' discussion of the use of mechanical breadboarding than a description of any particular system. It is online at http://www.sutd.edu.sg/cmsresource/idc/papers/2005-_Enhancing_the_teaching_of_machine_design_by_creating_a_basic_hands-on_environment_with_mechanical_breadboards.pdf

{Van 2004} Van, Doanh, David Ward, and Denise Theobald Roberts. "Designing a Mechanical Breadboard for Effective Teaching of Engineering Statics." Proceedings of the 2004 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition. Held in Salt Lake City, Utah, 2004.

My thanks to {Rosenberg 2014} for a fuller citation of this work. It is online at: https://peer.asee.org/designing-a-mechanical-breadboard-for-effective-teaching-of-engineering-statics.pdf