A 3D Printed Marble Run Features Neat Elevator Linkage

There’s seldom anything as joyful and relaxing to watch as a simple marble run. Of course, the thing about letting marbles fall under gravity is that you eventually need to lift them back up again. The Marblevator has a mechanism that does just that.

Overall, the build features a relatively simple marble run. It consists of just six 3D printed ramps which the marble tumbles down in just a few seconds. However, the real magic is in the mechanism that restores the marbles from the bottom of the run all the way back to the top.

A motor turns a gear, which then rotates a crank leading to a multi-link rhombus. On one corner of the rhombus is a small protrusion with a magnet attached, which picks up the marbles from the bottom of the run. As the mechanism turns, the rhombus shifts and brings the marble-carrying arm to the top of the marble run. There, it’s grabbed by another magnet, which holds the marble for a moment before letting it drop back down through the run.

It’s a simple project that nonetheless would make a brilliant desk toy. It’s also a great way to learn about linkage analysis and designing such systems on your own. If you’re big into marble runs, you might also consider procedurally generating them. Video after the break.

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Sisyphean Ball Race Robot Toils Gracefully, Magnetically

Aren’t ball races and marble runs fun? Wouldn’t they be so much more enjoyable if you didn’t have to climb back up the ladder each time, as it were, and reset the thing? [Johannes] wrote in to tell us about a wee robot with the Sisyphean task of setting a ball bearing on a simple but fun course, collecting it from the end, and airlifting it back to the start of the track.

[Johannes] built this ‘bot to test small-scale resin printing strength as well as the longevity of some tiny linear actuators from Ali that may or may not be available at a moment’s notice. The point was to see how these little guys fared when connected directly to an Arduino or other microcontroller, rather than going the safer route with a motor driver of some kind.

Some things worked well, like the c-clips that keep the axles together, and using quick pulses to release the magnetically-linked ball from the gripper. Other aspects didn’t work out so well. Tiny resin parts do not respond well to force, for starters. And then there’s the actuators themselves. The connections are fragile and the motors are weak, but they vary wildly in quality from piece to piece, so YMMV. Some lose steps, and others occasionally seize. But you wouldn’t know any of that from the graceful movement capture in the video below. Although it appears to be automated, the bot is under remote control because of the motor issues.

Not into ball runs? There are other Sisyphean tasks available, such as moving sand around in the name of meditation.

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Procedurally Generating Marble Runs

Marble runs are somehow incredibly soothing to play with and watch, with the gentle clack of the marbles and the smooth, predictable motion. Sadly for some, they never quite got enough time to enjoy them in school. Luckily, [Fernando Jerez] is here with a way to procedurally generate marble runs you can actually play with!

[Fernando] does a great job of explaining the mathematical process of generating the marble runs, using the method of random space filling curves. A maze is drawn on a grid, with points on the grid acting as walls. Each grid cell is then given a value based on points on its corners, and these values then translate into directions of travel. This creates a path through the maze. Scaling this path along the Z-axis, and then replacing the path with a marble track creates the run. It’s then a simple matter of adding a shaft to the loop with a screw to drive marbles back to the top of the run, and you’re all set!

With both animated explanations and actual 3D printed marble runs, [Fernando] demonstrates the concept well. We’d love to print a few runs of our own, and we can’t help but think there’s other great applications for the mathematics behind this concept. If you’re wise to it, drop it in the comments. Otherwise, check out these exquisite creations we’ve featured before!

Exquisite Craftsmanship Elevate Vic’s Creations Above The Rest

This booth was easy to miss at Maker Faire Bay Area 2019 amidst tall professional conference signage erected by adjacent exhibitors. It showcased the work of [Dr. Victor Chaney] who enjoys his day job as a dentist and thus feels no desire to commercialize his inventions — he’s building fun projects for the sake of personal enjoyment which he simply calls Vic’s Creations. Each project is built to his own standards, which are evidently quite high judging by the perfect glossy finish on every custom wood enclosure.

Some of these creations were aligned with his musical interests. The Backpacking Banjo was built around a (well cleaned) cat food can to satisfy the desire for a lightweight instrument he can take camping. His Musical Laser Rainbow Machine (fully documented in Nuts & Volts) was created so little bands formed by independent artists like himself can have a visual light show to go with their live performances. The Music Kaleidoscope is another execution along similar lines, with an LED array whose colors are dictated by music. Venturing outside the world of music, we see a magnetically levitated Castle In The Clouds which also receives power wirelessly to illuminate LEDs

The largest and most complex work on display is an epic electromechanical masterpiece. Par One is a rolling ball sculpture featuring the most convoluted golf course ever. Several more rolling ball sculptures (also called marble machines or marble runs) are on display at Dr. Chaney’s office which must make it the coolest dentist’s lobby ever. The lifelike motions he was able to get from the automatons he built into the sculpture are breathtaking, as you can see below.

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Marvelously Machined Clutch Masters Musical Marble Machine Mayhem

As far as marble runs go, few can hope to compete with [Wintergatan]’s amazing musical works. While undertaking the build of the Marble Machine X, timing problems became apparent. You can crank the machine faster or slower to alter the tempo, but the time it took marbles to drop due to gravity and hit an awaiting drum remains constant. You can’t control gravity, so you look to a mechanical solution in adjusting marble drops. In music, as in a jewel heist, timing is everything. Thankfully, [Machine Thinking] was on hand to collaborate, and a solution was found in the form of a beautifully machine indexable clutch.

The duo came together and designed a clutch, that would allow the timing relationship between various parts of the Marble Machine X to be varied. At 7:10 into the Wintergatan video below he gets down to brass tacks on how this brass music timing clutch actually works. At 90 BMP, the clutch allows the synchronization of the machine to be altered in approximately 10ms increments. Without this vital addition, drum beats would tend to slip out of time.

It’s a part that would challenge the novice, requiring the cutting of teeth and the inscription of accurate markings to allow it to do its job. However, it’s no trouble for [Machine Thinking], who shared a video of the machining process, including the outsourcing of the hand-engraved dial numbers.

Such a piece takes significant work to produce, and yet it is just one part of a much larger machine. We can’t wait to see the Marble Machine X finished, but if you’re unfamiliar with [Wintergatan]’s earlier works — you’re in for a treat.

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Ball Run Gets Custom Sound Effects

Building a marble run has long been on my project list, but now I’m going to have to revise that plan. In addition to building an interesting track for the orbs to traverse, [Jack Atherton] added custom sound effects triggered by the marble.

I ran into [Jack] at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics booth at Maker Faire. That’s a mouthful, so they usually go with the acronym CCRMA. In addition to his project there were numerous others on display and all have a brief write-up for your enjoyment.

[Jack] calls his project Leap the Dips which is the same name as the roller coaster the track was modeled after. This is the first I’ve heard of laying out a rolling ball sculpture track by following an amusement park ride, but it makes a lot of sense since the engineering for keeping the ball rolling has already been done. After bending the heavy gauge wire [Jack] secured it in place with lead-free solder and a blowtorch.

As mentioned, the project didn’t stop there. He added four piezo elements which are monitored by an Arduino board. Each is at a particularly extreme dip in the track which makes it easy to detect the marble rolling past. The USB connection to the computer allows the Arduino to trigger a MaxMSP patch to play back the sound effects.

For the demonstration, Faire goers wear headphones while letting the balls roll, but in the video below [Jack] let me plug in directly to the headphone port on his Macbook. It’s a bit weird, since there no background sound of the Faire during this part, but it was the only way I could get a reasonable recording of the audio. I love the effect, and think it would be really fun packaging this as a standalone using the Teensy Audio library and audio adapter hardware.

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Incredible Marble Music Machine

We tried to figure out how to describe the band [Wintergatan]. It took a lot of googling, and we decided to let their really incredible music machine do it for them. The best part? Unlike some projects like this that come our way, [Wintergatan] documented the whole build process in an eight part video series.

The core of the machine is a large drum with two tracks of alternating grey and black Lego Technic beams and pins. The musician sequences out the music using these. The pins activate levers which in turn drop ball bearings on the various sound producing devices in the machine. The melody is produced by a vibraphone. At first we thought the drum kit was electronic, but it turns out the wires going to it were to amplify the sound they made when hit. At the end of their travel the bearings are brought up to the hopper again by a bucket conveyor.

The final part count for the machine sits at 3,000 not including the 2,000 ball bearings rolling around inside of it. If you’ve ever tried to make a marble machine, then you’ll be just as impressed as we were that the machine only appeared to lose a few marbles in the course of a three minute song. Aside from the smoothness of the machine, which is impressive, we also enjoyed the pure, well, hackiness of it. We can spy regular wood screws, rubber bands, plywood, bits of wire, and all sorts of on-the-spot solutions. Just to add bonus cool, the whole project appears to have been built with  just a bandsaw, a drill press, and a few hand power tools.

The machine is great, but we also really appreciate the hacker spirit behind it. When a commenter on a YouTube video told him he was a genius, he replied, “Thank you for that! But I do think, though, that it is mostly about being able to put in the time! I mean the talent of being stubborn and able to see things through are more important than the abilities you have to start with. If you work hard on anything, you will learn what you need and success! Its my idea anyway! So happy people like the machine!”. Which we think is just as cool as the machine itself. Video of the machine in action and part one of the build series after the break!

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