Gears and Levers and Cams: Like I'm Five
January 15, 2014 6:20 PM   Subscribe

Does this exist? I want a 3D simulation program where I can experiment with gears (including bevel gears), slots and slides, eccentric cranks, levers, maybe even chain drives and belts and pulleys. Ideally I'd be able to change sizes, numbers/shapes of teeth, location of the drive shaft, etc. to see how those changes affect the motion of the gadget.

I'm coming from an art background and want to make kinetic sculptures that are interactive and use mechanisms to move and Do Neat Stuff. I'm not mechanically-minded and didn't have construction toys when I was little, so my understanding is pretty rudimentary but I'm interested in playing around now. I have books about kinetic art and automata toys, and the concepts are explained with good drawings and clear explanations. I'd like to play on my own to understand stuff better. A sim toy program would be a lot easier than cutting out pieces and then wondering if the thing doesn't work because it can't work, or because I cut it out sloppily. If I could make a good model in the program, I could then replicate it in real material.

I googled and found this but it's kind of limited, not a lot of components, and they're not easily customized. I think what I'm looking for is more like Lego x Erector Set x Minecraft. It seems like it would be an amazing toy with a lot of potential, surely it exists?
posted by Lou Stuells to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
AutoCAD can do that, but it ain't cheap!
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:34 PM on January 15, 2014

I think this design software from Disney Research Labs is exactly what you're after, but I don't think it's publicly available.

I suspect that what you're looking for might not exist (though I'll be happy to be wrong) because it lies at the intersection where the UI necessary to do that is getting too involved for consumer/casual users while the output is still too simplistic for industrial use, creating limited commercial viability.

I think buying a heap of lego technic (such as a mindstorms set) may be a more effective approach than you're assuming. It's a good way to make gears and mechanics become intuitive.

Alternatively, industry-level 3D software will not be quick to learn or to use, and indeed could be a mind-meltingly large undertaking, but you would be learning extremely powerful tools that while not a great match for the task you have in mind, are a workable match for the task while also being a great match for a thousand tasks in the future, it's a skill that opens up possibilities that would otherwise be closed to you.
posted by anonymisc at 6:36 PM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I do this all the time with Inventor.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 6:56 PM on January 15, 2014

This may not be what you're looking for, but it's a fun website and a good resource for mechanism ideas, and you can get paper automata kits to assemble, too.
posted by BillMcMurdo at 7:06 PM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

You may not be aware that Lego has an educational arm. Their things don't come cheap, but you might find something like what you're looking for in their machines & mechanisms line. I've been happy with everything I've bought from Lego Education.

You can get your feet with with the Crazy Contraptions Lego book from Klutz, which has just a few small projects, but they demonstrate very interesting concepts in gearing.

The Lego Technic idea book Simple Machines is very good.

I'm sorry none of these are software. I'll dig through my bookmarks and see if I have anything like that.
posted by not that girl at 7:45 PM on January 15, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the recommendations, everyone. anonymisc, I have to laugh. That is exactly what I'd love to play with. I'm actually pretty proud to learn that Disney Research Labs agrees with me about what's an awesome idea, though.

AutoCad and Inventor look interesting but daunting and of course prohibitively expensive. Last year I began playing with 3D programs a bit. Autodesk's 123D family is very accessible and comfortable to work with. I've also used Sculptris and Meshmaker.

BillMcMurdo, that site looks like a great resource, thanks!

I think it's going to be foamboard scrap and scratch paper diagram experiments for me. I appreciate the recommendation of Mindstorms and such, but I want to learn from the other end, by making the pieces, instead of working inside the constraints of pre-made parts. For some reason the attention span will tolerate tedious and repetitive cutting out of fussy but original bits a lot better than putting together prefab example puzzles to learn useful conceptual lessons. Oh, brain.

I do have the download version of this gear template generator, it's pretty cool.
posted by Lou Stuells at 9:32 PM on January 15, 2014

Solidworks, like Autocad, will do what you want, but it too is excitingly expensive.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:57 PM on January 15, 2014

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