One of the theories behind open-ended construction toys like the ubiquitous LEGOs, or Tinker Toys, or Lincoln Logs, or Zoob, is that they are, well, open-ended – materially as well as creatively. By the latter we mean that there is no single, defined ‘end’ stipulated by the nature of the toy at the front end (except for the sort of pre-defined sets that LEGO has come out with recently, like their famous building series). Instead, users can assemble, disassemble and re-assemble the pieces ad infinitum simply by re-arranging, adding and/or subtracting them.
The act of adding pieces relates to the first term referenced above, namely, that these toys are open-ended on a material basis – in other words, they can be manufactured in unlimited quantities, at least theoretically. Nothing about them or their production method needs to change and, as industrially produced objects, can be imagined to emanate from the assembly line without necessarily involving the human hand and its implications of mortality.
One aspect of these toys, however, is very much constrained, and that is the fact that the pieces from one toy do not physically connect to pieces from another. Until now, that is.
To remedy this long-standing limitation, the good folks at F.A.T. Lab and Sy-Lab came up with the Free Universal Construction Kit. Free, in that you don’t have to pay to get a download of the file used to manufacture this collection of connectors designed to unite an otherwise disparate group of leading modular construction toys. The only hitch is that you have to have access to a 3D printer, perhaps by acquiring one of the new desktop models being produced by companies like Makerbot, using an online service like Shapeways, or freeloading on your local university or institution.
What you’ll get after you run the file is 80 adapter bricks designed to interface with modules from Duplo, Fischertechnik, Gears! Gears! Gears!, K’Nex, Krinkles (Bristle Blocks) and Zome in addition to the ones already mentioned above, creating what its inventors call a “network of toys”. Explains one member of the team: “That’s really what every kid wants, an unrestricted set of tools to express their imagination physically.” Hey, some of us adults are kind of into it too!
Like most things worth doing, the kit’s design took a good bit of effort to finalize. Interestingly, with all the high tech tools at their disposal, at the end of the day a lot of physical trial and error with one prototype after another was needed to achieve the tolerances for things to connect properly. If nothing else, we are once again reminded that for all the shift to a technological perspective, we are still living in a material world (cue the music!).
Check out the video below to see the Universal Construction Kit in action.