Inventing Crossbeams

Charles SharmanAugust 16, 2016

The Aim of Crossbeams

“Dad, can we make a maglev train?” This question, posed by my five-year-old son, sparked the beginning of Crossbeams. Whether it's a spaceship, a skyscraper, an animal, or a maglev train, all of us want to make and create. It's in our blood. But when it comes to actually doing it, the task can be overwhelming. You may have to know trigonometry, algebra, mechanics, thermodynamics, electronics, art, drafting, machining, and more. I designed Crossbeams to simplify the building task. You dream, and Crossbeams helps you create.

Many creative platforms exist for younger ages. Yet many younger active creators become passive consumers as they age, immersed in video games, social media, smart phones, and television. I designed Crossbeams to hold the interest of older and advanced creators.

Dreams to Reality

Making Crossbeams' aims reality wasn't easy, particularly with a full-time job and family. First, I had to enhance my knowledge. During late nights and early mornings, I taught myself mechanics, gear design, and machining. I studied the limitations of current building systems and identified enhancements. A plethora of piece-types limits some building systems. According to Mark Changizi and others, a building system's creativity is enhanced by minimizing piece-types and maximizing the ways pieces connect. Delicacy limits some building systems. I wanted a model car that could crash into the wall without disintegrating. Finally, straight lines and boxiness limits some building systems. I wanted to accurately replicate lines and surfaces.

Next, I needed a way to try out pieces in a complete model without blowing the bank on prototyping costs. I wanted to ensure models looked appealing and the piece-types were minimal. I created the Crossbeams Modeller, a software tool to virtually connect Crossbeams pieces. I started with three core models: a Jet Fighter, a Sports Car, and an Elephant. I believed a building toy that could closely replicate these models could closely replicate many more. Initially, the models took more than 160 piece-types. After much work, I narrowed it to the 47 piece-types used today.

Finally, I needed a sturdy joint that locks pieces much more strongly than the joints in children's building toys. Children's building toys use friction-based joints; the force to connect is equal to the force to disconnect. That causes an inherent trade-off. If you make it stronger, you make it harder to assemble. Instead, I based my joint on a cotter pin two-motion joint. A two-motion joint unrelates the join force and separation force. I started with a cotter pin, and it evolved into our patented, simple slide-and-twist joint.

The Future of Crossbeams

While Crossbeams has captured much of its original intent, we still have far to go. Ages 10-12 and 20+ make our largest customer base. We haven't captured the hearts of young adults, for whom the system was intended.

We designed Crossbeams from the ground up to handle electronics but later tabled electronics to maintain our debt-free principle. Most of the electronics package is designed and ready. Once sales grow, we can make my son's maglev.

Success won't be judged by money in the bank but by a sampling of society. Whether it's Crossbeams, musical compositions, stories, or painting, once young adults are known for their creating instead of their consuming, our work is done.

*This article originally appeared in Maker Bolder.