A Neat Toy or a Mechanical Breadboard?

If you’ve been in the electronics field for a decade or more, you will likely have encountered a breadboard at some point.  Back when I was young I used them frequently, though newer electronic integrated circuit packages do not make it easy to do this, nor does the wiring limitations of the higher clocking frequencies of digital logic. The purpose of a breadboard is to enable the user  to create a prototype circuit, allow circuit modification, etc, before investing in the higher expenses of manufacturing a circuit board, or . . . just for the enjoyment of seeing how an idea can become something real.

Typical Electronics Beadboard

Typical Electronics Breadboard

On Wednesdays, during lunch, I play street-hockey with a former co-worker who is an electronics design engineer. He was asked by one of his children to make a particular toy . . . like a maglev train, and he discovered that there wasn’t a suitable mechanical equivalent to the electronics breadboard. So, he set out to make something which would be usable as a toy for older children as well as mechanical breadboards . . . for pretty much anyone.

Example of functional merry-go-round

Crossbeams functional merry-go-round

At first, I questioned the wire-frame style of construction as I compared it to other toys which use building blocks. But, after I thought about it more, I considered the process of turning an abstract idea into reality, and asked, “Do I really want to spend my time filling in the blanks or coloring between the lines?” For some people the answer may be yes, but for others, probably not, because your mind fills in the blanks. As I looked at this toy/mechanical breadboard further I began to wonder if simply using the toy could help develop a level of abstract thinking. The inventor says his toy is more of a creative toy and less of an assembly toy as described on his Features page.

He also created a computer modeling program which looks pretty interesting and seems like it would be easy to use.

Crossbeams Modeling Software

Crossbeams Modeling Software

Several years have passed since I first learned of his pursuit, and now he has quit his day job and started up his own company, which I think is really great. He manufactures the product, called Crossbeams, in the US.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts you’ll see that I enjoy working with mechanical things. At various points throughout my career as an electronics engineer I thought to myself that maybe I made a mistake and should have been a mechanical engineer instead, or perhaps both. I know that I would have spent plenty of time making my imagination come to life with something like Crossbeams when I was in 7th or 8th grade and beyond.  I liked seeing how things work and still do. As an example, in my early 20s I bought a new 2-cylinder, 2-cycle R/C aircraft engine just so I could disassemble it and examine how the fuel was distributed to each cylinder with only one carburetor and no poppet valves. Engineers are weird, aren’t they?

When I set out to make a reproduction valve knob last November, people asked how I could have known to do it the way I did. I couldn’t point to any one thing but it seemed more like the intersection of several things. I used some basic woodworking skills to make the mold-making box. My familiarity with two-part plastics/epoxy, gained from building kayaks, made it seem natural to use it for the valve knob, fuel cap and tank plug. Selecting the right epoxy for high-temp applications came from working with heat sinks used in electronics. And, all together, I used some visualization to help create the new fuel cap and tank plug molds, applying the ideas to existing stove parts and clay, and eventually produced the finished parts. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me, but I guess not everybody has been exposed to these things.

It seems to me that this Crossbeams toy/mechanical breadboard may be a fun and fruitful way to quickly turn someone’s imaginative ideas into something physical. You get to practice transforming your ideas into something you can hold. I found it interesting just to browse around the website. Check it out.

Please note: I am not associated with this company in any way other than the fact that I play street-hockey with the inventor. I thought it was an interesting idea and cool to know someone who ventured out on his own to create a new product.

Thanks for visiting my blog.

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