Engaging Mechanisms

About This Project

Our goal was to make an engaging mechanism that made a mark, was intuitive to use, and was easily assembled and disassembled, all using cardboard. We had an idea to use light as our mark maker. It seemed like a good idea, because it would be done without a traditional physical medium, and we imagined how it would result in multidimensional marks. We started brainstorming, and our first idea was to use a flashlight attached to the end of a pendulum. We would use a long-exposure camera to photograph the mark the light made as it swung over a few seconds.

September 26

To begin, we constructed two stands with a cardboard bar connecting them. This would serve as the two columns that would be connected by a horizontal bar. A flashlight in a box with a hole cut in it was attached to the bar as the swinging mechanism. The box had some cardboard pieces in it to keep the flashlight in place.

Cardboard pieces kept the flashlight stable.
A small hole concentrated the light source.
The assembled model.

This was our very first model. We were worried that the light would only be visible outdoors at night, but it was also visible indoors, because the flashlight was much brighter than the ambient studio light.

The first model with the camera.

To make the mark, we took a long-exposure photo with the camera while simultaneously letting the flashlight drop from a raised position. We experimented with different angles and positions, and eventually found a few that worked really well. However, they were very hard to replicate, so we want to make a new mechanism that is more predictable and controlled, which is one of the qualities we talked about in class.

Indoor and outdoor attempts.

We showed Steve our idea, and he thought it was interesting, but he didn’t like that the idea relied on a camera. He said we would have to project the images or show them on a display. He preferred a solution that was more physical, i.e. we could use the mechanism and hold up the completed mark immediately after. His idea was to use photo luminescent glow-in-the-dark paper. We ordered some, and we’re waiting for it to arrive.

September 28

After we finished testing our first model, we split up to work on some concepts by ourselves. I was inspired by the idea of having an object “slither,” so I build a mechanism of several small boxes connected with some tape “string”.

The movement of the slither model.

I tested it out by moving the train of cubes back and forth, trying to make a slithering motion. It didn’t work out that well, but I realized that this mechanism would work really well as the swinging part of the pendulum! So even though it didn’t work out the way I wanted to, I still got something out of this little side exploration.

October 3

Carolyn and I worked to improve our existing model using the things we learned from the previous model and our own independent experimentation. We really focused on modularity and adaptibility for this iteration. We came up with some ideas to make the model able to respond to a greater variety of situations.

To do so, we cut notches of various heights for our horizontal bar that the mechanism swung from. This allowed us to assemble the pendulum mechanism at different heights. We also cut a groove for our pendulum so that it would remain fixed on the swinging bar.

Precut slots made our model more flexible on the fly.

We had a lot of trouble with the stability of the piece. When the mechanism swung, the force of the pendulum would knock the entire thing over. It worked better when the entire thing was weighed down either with our hands or another non-cardboard object. Stacie objected to using other materials and advised us to improve our craftsmanship instead. During this entire phase, we were nervous because we knew all our work would be rendered useless if our glow-in-the-dark paper didn’t work out.

When the glow-in-the-dark paper arrived, we immediately tried to see if our idea would work. We went downstairs into the darkroom and tried using the paper with the included flashlights. We determined that it wasn’t really feasible to demonstrate the mechanism in front of the entire class during the day to pull off all the challenges associated with using the paper.

The glow-in-the-dark paper had the follow problems:

  • It required a focused, concentrated light source
  • It only worked well in completely darkness
  • It was highly temporary, with the mark dissapearing in light
  • The surface was quite small

Rather than beat a dead bush, we decided to change directions.

Changing Directions

October 5

Carolyn had been thinking about an idea earlier: to build a mechanism inspired by a music box, and we decided to go ahead and try that idea. At this point, we were feeling pretty discouraged, but we were ready to create something new. A music box works with a rotating cylinder with precise extrusions. A tab makes a specific pitch when it hits a bump, and the bumps are sequenced to create a recognizable tune when the entire mechanism is cranked. We wanted to rotate a cylinder and create marks with some affixed drawing utensils. The “bumps” would be cutouts in the cylinder, where the pen could make contact with the paper. The cylinder would be rotated by hand using a side handle.

Music box (google.com)

We started by constructing cardboard cylinders. It was a bit tricky, because cardboard doesn’t bend easily. Also, since we kept the inside layer of corrugation, the paper wasn’t flush with the outer edge of the cylinder, making the rotation movement unsmooth. We fixed this by removing the corrugation.

Left: With the corrugation. Right: Without the corrugation.

To close the seam, we used masking tape. We cut out holes on the surface of the cardboard roll, then we placed a piece of paper rolled up inside the cylinder.

Our first cylinder, closed with masking tape.

To reinforce the overall structure, we created a second, small cylinder that fit snugly inside the larger one. The paper fit in between the two. The smaller cylinder pushed the paper flush against the outer edge, as well as created a solid surface beneath the paper to draw on.

Paper goes in between the two cylinders in a sandwich.

We built a rudimentary platform for the cylinder to spin on, and started testing. We started with paint, but we found that media to be difficult to work with. The paint wouldn’t apply smoothly, esepcially since we didn’t have any brushes to work with.

This did NOT work.

We experimented with different pens, and we established that the best pen would be a Copic brush pen. The flexibility and pointy-ness of the tip fit the specifications of the project the best.

To place the pen in position, we made ramps to hold the pens at the angle to make contact with the cylinder. However, these ramps didn’t hold the pens tight enough, so they generally didn’t work.

A ramp stand that didn’t work.

We only got these ramps to work with a lot of manual fiddling, so the design was very unreliable.

These were our first few attempts to create a mark using this model:

Early attempts. Note the uniformity in the mark lengths.

More Refining

Creating holders for the brush pens.

As we started refining our design, we decided to commit to only using cardboard in our design, with no tape or glue. We started by re-engineering our cylinder.

Tabs instead of tape.

We cut tabs to close the seam, which worked surprisingly well! This was encouraging, and we got a lot of work done that day because things were going fairly well.

In addition to removing tape, we renewed our focus on craftsmanship, especially in the base pieces, to keep our piece stable and ready for movement. This meant that the rotation movement would not render the entire model unstable. At first, the model would not rotate consistently. However, Stacie’s advice and expertise from earlier really helped here. Better craftsmanship generally solved all our issues.

New pen supports.

We created a new design to support our pens, instead of the ramp design we used previously. We generally learned that pieces that were measured and cut precisely were more effective than pieces that were cut more loosely or by eye. The new supports had precisely-cut holes for the pens to fit through. In addition, we created the supports out of as few pieces as possible. Instead of three different panels, we made a single panel with three holes. We found that this philosophy of simplification generally made our model more reliable as a whole.

At first, we had two pen supports, as seen above. But due to the nature of the mechanism, where the pens would be moving on a slightly uneven surface, the pens needed some “wiggle room,” which was eliminated by the second support. In the final piece, we only had one support, which worked well enough. It gave the pens flexibility to move as the cylinder rotated, which ensured that the pens would have an easier time making contact with the paper.

After we found the pen supports to be reliable, We also reconsidered our cutout pattern. The first one was more uniform, with even spacing and sizing. For the new one, we created different sizes and different patterns to give our mark more variety.

The old one is on the top. The new one is on the bottom.
The cuts and the corresponding mark.
A video of the mechanism at work!

This is a comparison of the old version’s marks (on the left) compared to our final version (on the right):

Old on the left, new on the right.

The sum of all these refinements created a model that ultimately, fit the project guidelines pretty well. We used no materials other than three Copic pens, cardboard, and paper. We were very proud of our ability to remove our dependence on glue and tape. This also allowed us to assemble the entire mechanism during our presentation in only a minute or two, even though nothing was preassembled. We also got the mark making mechanism to work reliably, something we didn’t think we could achieve in the first place.

Our final model.

Final Thoughts

While I will admit that some parts of this project were frustrating, since we had to rethink our concept as well as weather a lot of construction issues, I still learned plenty.

One defining lesson was the value of simplicity. While the general mechanism and concept was fairly simple, this focus on simplicity allowed us to create something that worked well, as well as fulfilled the project guidelines of being intuitive and quick to assemble.

Craftsmanship’s importance also manifested itself again in this project. Good craftsmanship completely improved our model, from appearance to how well it worked. It was difficult to transition because our of lack of experience with building 3D models, but now I feel more confident in making cardboard objects. For example, Mark B. suggested that we could use these building skills to create drawing models in Visualizing.

Overall, I don’t think I’ll file this project away in the “WOW, YOU DID GREAT!” section. It was hard, and things could’ve gone better, but I did learn. I really did appreciate working with a partner, because Carolyn gave me a lot of support and two minds working together helped us solve problems more quickly and effectively.

Thanks for reading!

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