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Hi! My name is Austin and I am a computer science major and product design minor at the University of Minnesota. I have always had a passion for anything that allows me to create, and K’NEX has been a life-long favorite of mine. I currently work at The Works Museum in Bloomington, MN where I do maintenance on my large K’NEX installation, and I am a lab instructor for a Toy Product Design class.
K’NEX: What is your first memory of playing with K’NEX?
Austin: My first experience playing with K’NEX was in preschool when I was four years old. Our room had a large box of K’NEX pieces for us to play with, and it was always my favorite activity when we had free time. A year later, I got a K’NEX set of my very own; a set of three pull-back cars using the wind-up motor. It wasn't much, but I was hooked, and from that point on I asked for K’NEX for nearly every birthday and Christmas. Within two years, I was building the classic roller coaster and the Big Ball Factory (which remains my all-time favorite set). My collection grew steadily, and before I knew it, I had tens of thousands of pieces.
K’NEX: What's your favorite thing you've ever built with K'NEX?
Austin: In 2008, inspired by videos I had seen on the internet, I built my first custom K’NEX ball machine. I had so much fun, my interest in K’NEX was immediately reinvigorated. I turned it into a yearly event, with the planning and construction of a new ball machine starting almost immediately after the old one came down. I began buying every K’NEX set I could find to expand my project. In late 2011, I began construction on what was to be my fifth K’NEX ball machine, called Clockwork. Inspired by some engineering courses I had taken at school, I decided to go for an ambitious design which combined K’NEX and robotics. I modified some K’NEX plug-in motors and connected them to a motor controller I built, and created a fully automated robotic crane which spanned my entire room. 8 months and 40,000 pieces later, it was my largest and most complex K’NEX structure to date. As with all of my K’NEX creations, I made a video and put it on YouTube. I awoke the next morning stunned to find that it had gone viral overnight, amassing 200,000 views in a single day, and 2 million by the end of the week. Clockwork remains my favorite K’NEX build of all time.
K’NEX: What skills did you learn/strengthen by building with K'NEX (problem solving, critical thinking, innovation)?
Austin: One of my favorite ways to use K’NEX is to challenge myself to solve engineering problems. I enjoy posing problems to myself, such as "Can I create a 40 foot high tower?" or "Can I figure out how to make an automatic transmission?" and then dedicating a weekend to sitting around with a pile of K’NEX and trying to solve it. I don't always succeed, but I learn from my mistakes and always have a ton of fun trying to work through the problem. K’NEX has taught me to work within a set of constraints by thinking outside the box, which is a skill that serves me well no matter what I may be doing.
K’NEX: What other interests do you have, besides building large models with K'NEX?
Austin: When I am not building K’NEX, I enjoy being creative through whatever outlet I can find. This includes programming, writing music, photography, animation, electronics, 3D modeling/rendering/printing, and anything else that allows me to make things. I try to combine my other hobbies with K’NEX whenever possible in innovative ways, such as computer controlled lights and motors, or projecting animations onto K’NEX set to music. Apart from that, I am an avid biker and enjoy exploring the trails around Minneapolis and Saint Paul with my friends.
K’NEX: What is your biggest success this far in building with K'NEX? In your life?
Austin: The largest thing I have ever built with K’NEX was a project I just recently completed for The Works Museum. After the success of my Clockwork video, they contacted me and asked me to design and build a K’NEX ball machine for their lobby. Given the massive space I had to work with, as well as a large collection of pieces generously donated by museum visitors and board members, I constructed the largest K’NEX ball machine ever made, which stands 23 feet tall and 40 feet long, and contains over 100,000 pieces. Designing for a children's science museum presented a whole new set of challenges. I had to make a machine that can run 40 hours a week without breaking, and be strong and safe enough to withstand anything the kids could throw at it. It was great fun talking with the kids and their parents while I worked, and it was always great whenever I heard "I want to go home and build my own ball machine right now!” The entire construction took four months, with the help of my good friend Sam Ihlenfeldt who has helped me with many of my big builds.
K’NEX: Do you have other huge builds planned for the near future? What are they?
Austin: I am currently working on a new ball machine in my room for 2014, called Pandemonium. It consists of a 5 foot wide spinning ball distributor hanging from a ceiling made entirely of K’NEX which supports its own weight. It is surrounded by a giant circular ring of programmable LEDs which react to music and change color. Because I have been so busy with school it has been very slow going, but I plan to finish it by this summer.
K’NEX: What inspires you?
Austin:: My sources of inspiration can come from almost anywhere, but what I find most inspiring are things which demonstrate amazing creativity or problem solving. This can be other K’NEX projects, or art, or animation, or movies, or even mechanisms like a clever use of gears and linkages. I am always inspired by people who combine many different fields into one, such as combining light, music, and robotics to create an innovative performance piece
K’NEX: Do you have any advice for K'NEX builders?
Austin: To any other K’NEX builders, I say keep trying to push the limits of what you can do. Challenge yourself to build things you don't think are possible. Even if you don't succeed, you will learn from the experience and probably have a lot of fun doing it. For parents, encourage your kids to keep being creative, and try not to step on K’NEX with bare feet!
K’NEX: What are your future goals?
Austin: I don't entirely know what I would like to do in the future, but I hope that whatever I end up doing will allow me to be creative. I am hoping to use my product design minor to get a job in that field. Wherever I end up, though, I'll be taking my K’NEX with me.