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bot Makerbeam

Tinkerers have been using construction toys to build project enclosures for years: Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page famously built their first server case out of repurposed Mega Bloks. The next logical progression is a construction set that’s built specifically to mount PCBs, sensors, and stepper motors, yet still accommodates traditional projects like robots and vehicles.

One of these building sets is MakerBeam, a system of open source aluminum girders and connectors that resembles an Erector set for adults. It uses a “Mini-T” standard that’s a miniature version of T-slot building systems.

MakerBeam’s Sam Putman, Glenn Powers, and James Coddington chose to fund their project via micro-patron site Kickstarter (kickstarter.com), which allows hundreds of donors to contribute a few dollars each toward specific projects. MakerBeam raised almost $18,000 this way. Recently we chatted with Putman to find out what was going on.

John Baichtal: Why did you choose Kickstarter to fund your project?

Sam Putman: Kickstarter let us reach our community directly. Instead of investment and debt, we’re starting with manufacturing paid for and our alpha and beta test teams ready to go. With a bank, giving your IP away is a loss of value; for the makers who will work with it, it’s an asset. The bounty we’ve raised will let us develop some kits in-house, which we’re considering offering through Kickstarter.

I can’t say too much now, but we’re talking robots, and not the kind that sit on your desk.

JB: MakerBeam is open source hardware — you even have a “copyleft” backward C as part of your logo. But what’s stopping someone from just snagging the 3Ds you create and “printing their own”?

SP: We posted a demo of our beam profile on Thingiverse in early October [2009]. People all over the world were printing it and modifying it within days. This is exactly what we want.

Current 3D printing can’t touch the precision and strength of tempered aluminum alloy, but it can produce an endless array of connectors and compatible parts. We’ll be publishing all our models and standards as we develop them. Anyone can print, CNC, extrude, or injection-mold the parts as they please. We intend to stay right in the middle of the game we started, and have fun doing it.

JB: One interesting subplot to this project is your interaction with MicroRAX, a company with a similar product, only not open source. What’s going on?

SP: Parallel innovation is more common than not, and MicroRAX got their profile to market just as we were launching on Kickstarter. Their beam is a spinoff of the Space Elevator Games, and there are some odd design choices in there, so we’ll see.

On the proprietary versus open front, I’ve talked to MicroRAX’s Chris Burrows and I get the sense they’re thinking it over. There’s nothing stopping MicroRAX from making their design open source, or even from cloning our design and selling it. Basically, mini T-slot building systems are brand new and it’s good to see an alternative, if only to keep us on our toes.

MakerBeam aims to offer kits at Bay Area Maker Faire 2010. Learn more at makerbeam.com.


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