I met Terence Tam at Maker Faire 2012 in San Mateo, California, this last May. He had just completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise $30,000 to fund his brainchild, OpenBeam, pulling in over triple his goal — $100,825. At Maker Faire, he was making the rounds, handing out cards and showing samples of OpenBeam. I remember being instantly impressed with not only the OpenBeam product, but also with Terence himself. He was able to explain the benefits of his product fast, in easy-to-understand terms, and even as Maker Faire was shutting down and vendors were packing up their booths and supplies, I saw him still smiling and visiting with folks and sharing his dream.
Terence has already proven himself with successful deliveries to his backers (breaking with the typical Kickstarter experience, Terence delivered over 80% of his backers’ deliverables before the actual promised due dates!), so it’s no surprise that his next step is to ramp up production of OpenBeam for retail sale to anyone who wants it. Product developers out there might want to take note of Terence’s project management skills — backers have been given glimpses into Terence’s oversight of the manufacturing and delivery of his products… it’s some good stuff to read on his blog if you’re into that kind of thing.
So, what is OpenBeam? What Lego is for kids’ creativity, OpenBeam is for tinkerers, makers, fast prototypers, and anyone looking for a method to quickly and easily assemble structures. OpenBeam is a collection of parts — beams, joining plates, fasteners, and more — that allow you to assemble structures using t-slot technology.
Now here’s the thing — there are already systems like OpenBeam out there that use t-slots along with special nuts and bolts and plates for connecting everything together. And by special, I mean proprietary. Sure, you can get the aluminum beams for a low, low price… but the unique nuts and bolts are going to cost you a bundle, especially when they’re often sold in very small quantities. It’s the old “give away the razor but charge a hefty sum for the blades.”
And that’s what has made OpenBeam so welcome in the DIY community. Terence chose to create a system of beams and plates that could easily be connected with standard metric nuts and bolts that you could buy from just about anywhere — he does sell bags of nuts and bolts (100 each) at reasonable prices that are comparable to online vendors. The plates are injection molded out of a high performance fiberglass reinforced plastic to keep the costs down. (The material is called Grivory, and was developed by the Germans to replace die cast metal parts.)
One other thing that I’m extremely happy about when it comes to OpenBeam is that it actually adheres to the Open Source concept — imagine that! For example, Terence is happy to sell you a pack of 8 injection molded T plates (see image) for $7.60. But if you care to read down the product page a bit, you’ll see a link to the actual design file where you can download it. Got a 3D printer? Go ahead and print yourself up a T plate if you need to — it may not be as strong as the injection molded part, but it’ll do in a pinch, especially if you’re just prototyping a structure.
The nuts and bolts and plates are cheap and easy to buy or make yourself, but it’s the aluminum extrusion (available in black anodized and clear anodized) that’s the heart of the OpenBeam system. You can get a meter (uncut) for $10.00 ($12 for black) and cut it to any smaller lengths you need. But Terence also has plans to start selling the extrusions in smaller, pre-cut lengths. For now, the only way to get the smaller pre-cut lengths is in a kit, and that’s what arrived on my doorstep recently.
It truly is Lego for DIYers. Like a kid, I had all the extrusions and connectors and brackets dumped out on the floor in front of me as I tried to figure out what I’d make first. I started slow, testing the accuracy of the small M3 bolts sliding into the extrusion… perfect and smooth. No catching on any jagged edges, no locking in place because an inner surface wasn’t extruded to exact dimensions, and a precise fit into the holes of the brackets, ensuring a perfect 90 degree assembly.
My kit also came with a variety of motor mounts; I didn’t have a NEMA 17 motor available to unbolt from another project, but I did have a number of small servos that I was able to bolt on to my test structure using the the hobby servo mounts. No problems in matching up the mounting holes!
The shaft clamp parts (2x) had me scratching my head until I visited OpenBeamUSA.com to see what they were. When I finally figured it out, I couldn’t believe it — a linear bearing rod could be held using these things. I was just thinking about the possibility of transferring an older prototype 3D printer I had sitting in the workshop with OpenBeam when an email from Terence told me that he was planning his own OpenBeam 3D printer options. There are also OpenBeam 3D Printers on Thingiverse. Cool!
Does this sound like something you might find useful? As I said, Terence is selling extrusions in meter lengths for your special projects, but if you’re thinking about purchasing a kit, you’re going to need to move fast. His supplies are limited if you want delivery by Christmas. The kits he’s put together range from $95 for the starter kit to $225 for the machine builder kit (both prices include shipping). Currently, kit availability is limited by machine processing time on the computer controlled chop saw he uses, so visit blog.openbeamusa.com for the latest news on Terence’s stock levels.
OpenBeam is really just getting off the ground, so the blog and tutorials section of the website should be considered works in progress. And I’m not worried about OpenBeam’s long-term outlook — as more folks discover its usefulness and how fast and easy it is to build with, I expect Terence will find ways to increase his production levels. We live in a world where the DIY/maker movement is growing fast and strong, and OpenBeam provides a product that I believe is going to be in demand.
If you’d like to learn more about OpenBeam, a good place to start is Terence’s Kickstarter project. It’s a great summary of the product. But you’ll also want to check out some videos I’m including below that show you OpenBeam in action.
Note: I’d like to thank Terence for providing me with the Machine Builder Kit to review. I’m well on my way to putting together something that, if it works, will single handedly change the aerospace industry forever. Or just look really cool and make loud noises. Watch for a press release.