In November, I had the opportunity to travel to Seattle for a Magic: The Gathering tournament. While I was there, I visited the headquarters of TwinTech, a small company run by identical twin brothers, Steve and Chris Burrows, who manufacture a small rack-building set called MicroRAX. At the time, a similar set, called MakerBeam, was hot in the news for its innovative funding angle — getting capital via the microfunding site KickStarter. I was intrigued because MicroRAX was a nigh-identical product, lacking only MakerBeam’s marketing moxie. But also unlike MakerBeam, it was a product already on the market, with starter sets available from TwinTech’s online store.
Chris Burrows picked me up at my hotel and we drove to TwinTech’s workspace. The company works out of a small warehouse, sharing it with other small industrial firms. Set up in one corner of the space, the workshop was gloriously messy, filled with a variety of machinery and half-finished projects.
TwinTech’s core business is making couplers that let you connect multiple tubes at once, however, it was the MicroRAX that interested me. Obviously they had tons of beam lying around. In addition to boxes of beam waiting to be cut — both plain aluminum and their awesome black anodized version — there were numerous examples of the MicroRAX used for practical purposes. The Burrows’ rule is that they won’t build anything for the shop (e.g., shelves or an iPod stand) using any other material besides MicroRAX.
Unlike some systems where you’re expected to use the sizes of beams you’re given, MicroRAX fully assumes you’re going to hack off specific lengths off the standard .9-meter beams available from their store. This also means that if you had a need for larger pieces, the guys can cut it special for you — I saw lengths of MicroRAX beam in the 5-10′ range used for practical purposes around the shop, as well as huge cardboard boxes holding uncut 12′ beams they’d gotten back from the extruder.
I asked Chris about the open-source angle. One aspect of MakerBeam which appealed to potential donors was their claim to be open source, though this is not the case thus far — still in alpha, it lacks the documentation, user-contributions, and open standards that are the hallmarks of open projects. A better example might be Contraptor, a fantastic VEX-esque building set that sets the benchmark for openness and community cooperation.
While MicroRAX isn’t open, Chris told me that when you deal with engineers, you can’t hold anything back. A company can’t really have an industrial product like TwinTech’s multi-tube couplers or MicroRAX without divulging everything to a potential customer. They’ll want to know the precise dimensions and characteristics of your product before they’ll buy it. From an end-result standpoint, how is that really different from publishing your 3Ds?
While I greatly enjoyed visiting TwinTech’s shop, something was missing — actually, someone — Chris’s brother Steve. Chris explained that Steve was off in the Mojave(!) participating in the 2009 Space Elevator Games(!!) as a member of the Lasermotive team. For those who don’t know, a space elevator would theoretically lift cargo into orbit via a cable stretching from the ground to space, using a laser to remotely power the elevator’s car, known as a “climber.” NASA has set aside $5 million in prize money for teams who achieve certain benchmarks, much the same way the X Prize works.
The whole space elevator thing sounded super-cool to me, but at the time, I didn’t realize that the Games and MicroRAX were connected. It turns out that MicroRAX might not have even existed but for Steve’s participation in the Space Elevator Games.
After the Games concluded, Steve emailed me with details of MicroRAX’s genesis:
Around late 2008, early 2009, Lasermotive was deep into the process of coming up with a structure for its photovoltaic (PV) array. The array structure would need to be both very light and rugged enough to support and protect the delicate PV cells, loaned to Lasermotive by Boeing, and custom-made by Boeing’s Spectrolab. The PV cells are one of a kind, and replacement would not be possible should too many of them get damaged. The learning curve to try and use carbon fiber-reinforced plastic proved to be too steep, few of us had experience with the material, and our efforts to use it beyond a few components were thwarted. Working on a tight schedule, I resorted to using aluminum alloys, mostly 6061 and 7075, to machine intricate and tiny components for building a structure that could withstand the harsh contest conditions, be field-repairable, and still light enough to be competitive.
As I began delivering the parts, one of our team members, Carsten Erickson, owner of Coolearth Software, picked some up, looked at them and said “this would make a real cool toy building system, and I’d buy them!” Some parts were machined from large plates of aluminum that had well over 99% of the original material removed to reveal the component we needed, and the part Carsten was looking at was one of them! Running a quick calculation in my head, one of those parts massed produced would retail for about $100! Not a good price for just one part of a toy that would need dozens of these parts to actually make something. So the desire to create Carsten’s toy would have to wait for a better method of manufacturing. The thought of making a very small “T Slot” building system just seemed like a real cool idea to Chris and myself, so we kept kicking the idea around.
In early 2009, the brothers got serious about developing MicroRAX and began testing out designs on the computer, eventually settling on a 10x10mm cross section shaped something like a snowflake, keeping the weight low while maximizing strength. Steve brought lengths of prototype beam over to Lasermotive’s workshop for the team to look at, and they made several suggestions that ended up being implemented in the final design.
Ultimately, MicroRAX ended up not being used in the actual climber but it’s used in the Lasermotive shop for mounting various implements like lasers and mirrors. Oh, and the games? Lasermotive’s climber took home first place, earning the company $900,000 in prize money.
The latest project the guys are working on is to make their beams compatible with other building sets, chiefly VEX, Mechano, and Erector. In their default configurations, they don’t work well: to begin with, MicroRAX is metric and VEX and Erector use imperial. However, the brothers created nut plates with holes in half-inch intervals, allowing VEX/Erector plates and flat girders to attach to MicroRAX beams — though you also have to make sure to cut your beam into imperial intervals. The brothers are even considering ways to connect MicroRAX to Lego, though the beams’ 6063-T6 aluminum is vastly stronger than Lego’s ABS.
Is there a market for grown-up building sets? There definitely seems to be, given the eagerness of donors to contribute to MakerBeam and the participation evident on Contraptor’s forums. Here’s another indicator: When John Edgar Park posted an offer the Burrows’ had made to send out free samples, TwinTech got over 200 requests between 5pm and midnight, and the brothers ultimately had to put a hold on freebies until they could get caught up. Clearly there’s a hunger out there for awesome rackbuilding and prototyping beams!