Last year Golan Levin’s son decided to build a car. Aside from the minor inconvenience of being 4 years old, the younger Levin faced an engineering challenge. His Tinkertoys, which he wanted to use for the vehicle’s frame, wouldn’t attach to his K’Nex, the pieces he wanted to use for the wheels.
It took his father, an artist, hacker and professor at Carnegie Mellon, a year to solve that problem. In the process he cracked open a much larger one: In an age when anyone can share, download and create not just digital files but also physical things, thanks to the proliferation of cheap 3-D printers, are companies at risk of losing control of the objects they sell?
In March Levin and his former student Shawn Sims released a set of digital blueprints that a 3-D printer can use to create more than 45 plastic objects, each of which provides the missing interface between pieces from toy construction sets. They call it the Free Universal Construction Kit. The tens of thousands of consumers who now own devices such as MakerBot’s $1,100 Thing-O-Matic can download those files and immediately print a plastic piece that connects their Lego bricks to their Fischertechnik girders, their Krinkles to their Duplos, or half a dozen other formerly incompatible sets of modular plastic blocks, sticks and gears.