This year at the San Francisco Bay Area Maker Faire, trying to juggle my own interests (talk to cool people) and my 5-year-old son's (build or break stuff), we both hit paydirt at the same time when we stumbled across the Grid Beam exhibit.
My kid spent 45 minutes in the hot sun inventing and screwing together a life-size car-like contraption, and I got to dive into the minutiae of the product with its creators, Phil and Richard Jergenson.
Grid Beam is Erector Set meets IKEA. The hardware is standard 2x2 wood beams with holes drilled through every 1 1/2 inches (which is the actual width of a 2x2 beam), and standard furniture bolts that will be familiar to anyone who's ever assembled a futon frame. With these base materials, users can tinker in three dimensions, at human scale, and end up with constructions that are naturally square and true, and strong enough to support real-world people. Unlike Lego, Grid Beam inventions don't shatter when you step on them.
The Grid Beam design is not new. The Jergenson brothers have been working with grid beams since the late 1970s, when Phil says he found the beginnings of the concept in a book by Ken Isaacs, "How to Build Your Own Living Structures." "I instantly realized that it needs more holes," he said. He tinkered with the design of a new, modular building system. It was called box beam initially, changed to grid beam in 1998.
As the Maker movement took off a few years ago, the concept began to get some traction among construction geeks. But It wasn't until this year's Maker Faire that Grid Beam became an actual product you could buy.
For $139, Jergenson will sell you a box with 62 feet of pine Grid Beams cut into various lengths, with a bag of connectors and a hex wrench. At Maker Faire he threw in a few wheels as well. It's not a great deal in terms of cost per foot for cheap lumber (which it is), but for a harried dad without easy access to a drill press and a jig to make his own beams, it looks like a good investment. I bought a kit, but was one of only three people at the fair who did, Phil told me. They did sell more of their new book, though, "How to Build with Grid Beam."
When or if I need more building material, I may buy it from the Jergensons, or I could make it myself at a place like TechShop, if I can muster the effort.
Low tech but still geeky
Ironically, Grid Beam is made off the grid. Phil Jergenson moved to Northern California (Mendocino) in 1979, bought 20 acres, and established himself as an independent solar fanatic, in his words. "The whole shop is off the grid. It's all solar," he says. Right now he's buying lumber locally for the kits, and cutting and drilling in his facility, but he's designing a full mill to take in raw wood and produce Grid Beam.
Solar power aside, it's just not a high-tech operation. At the 2012 fair, which was the first time the Jergensons offered kits for sale, they weren't even equipped to take credit card orders. Square? What's that? At the moment, it's cash or check. E-mail the company if you want to place an order before the new site comes up, due in June. Or you can call, but Jergenson's card has a phone number without an area code listed. To say he's not of the tech world is an understatement.
Yet the Jergensons do have open source in their bones. The raw material is easy to acquire at a lumber yard, and the key design point is to drill holes that are precisely as far apart as the beams are wide. That's it. Constructions made of Grid Beam are also easy to copy. Just look at a photo and count the holes between connections.
Can Grid Beam make actual money, then? It likely can. The packages of pre-drilled beams are convenient ways for people to get into the system, and as experts on Grid Beam, the Jergensons can make money selling expertise, in the way of books or other media.
Grid Beam could do more. I wasn't the only person at the show talking about how IKEA could open a line of design-it-yourself furniture using Grid Beam concepts or products. "We're a little overwhelmed about the directions this could go," Phil Jergenson said. "There are no models before us other than little kid toy construction kits."
Grid Beam sizes down
Speaking of littler kits, the Grid Beam concept is also available in a smaller size. Jason Huggins has been working on a Lego-scale version of the concept, called Bitbeam. Grid Beam was his inspiration, he says.
Huggins set up a little demo of Bitbeam robots at the Grid Beam booth. The concept seemed to get some traction at the fair. At one point, someone who had a 3D printer showed up with freshly printed plastic Bitbeam pieces.
Huggins isn't selling Bitbeams. Yet. But he, like the Jergensons, will gladly reveal what makes the system work. It's the same concept: keep the holes the same distance apart as the beams are wide. The center-on-center spacing of his product is 8mm, like Lego Technic beams, so users can combine Bit Beams with Lego hardware at will.
Huggins, clearly, is another open-source booster. First we had open-source software, he said. Then hardware (like Arduino). Now we're getting new open-source construction concepts. He and the Jergensons both feel that the more of your basic idea that you give away, the bigger the concept can get overall. And somewhere in that growth, there's a little money to be made.