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The Cardboard Modular Robots of [m]MTM

The success of the class on “How to Make Something That Makes (almost) Anything” taught by Neil Gershenfeld and now a vast international fab lab team at the MIT led to the creation of a module called Machines that Makes (MTM).

James Coleman followed the course and was particularly interested in making modular robots, neatly called Modular Machines that Make ([m]MTM).

Idea is to build open source low-cost robots that can be build and used in many ways. All the documentation to build your own modular robots is online.

MakingSociety asked James a few questions on the machines that he created and how to make modular robots more accessible.

[m]MTM Cardboard CNC by James Coleman and Nadya Peek

[m]MTM Cardboard CNC by James Coleman and Nadya Peek

Along with Nadya Peek, James Coleman has been a prolific maker of modular tools. His focus on building low-cost machines out of cardboard definitively grab my attention.

It resonates well with the series on cardboard prototyping published a few months ago.

MakingSociety: Why did you decide to integrate the Machines that Make module?

James Coleman: Well, if you have a look at the website you will see the results of the class “How to Make Something That Makes (almost) Anything”, taught every 3 years at MIT. It is a follow up class to Neil Gershenfelds’s “How to Make (almost) Anything” class.

I was apart of it in 2012 and worked on a 5 Axis Desktop Milling Machine. There have been a lot of great machines created over the years but a problem we noticed is that each project was in a way ‘siloed’ from the rest. Carry over knowledge from project to project was limited and each new machine battled similar issues.

The modular machines project hopes to get around this by using reconfigurable hardware and extensible controls to streamline the creation of bespoke fabrication machines.

[m]MTM Cardboard CNC

[m]MTM Cardboard CNC

MakingSociety: Who are your machines made for?

James Coleman: My machines are made for me! Your machines can be made for you, or a friend. We hope that by lowering the barrier to entry of machine design personalized fabrication machines are possible.


Endless options of kinematic options from simple parts.

There is lots of talk about 3d printers creating ‘factories in every home’, but if that is the case everyone’s factory will have the same production capabilities!

I much prefer a ecosystem of different home factories, and I think it’s possible if machine design and control is simplified. As for the type of user, people who like to make things and enjoy working with their hands and their computers.

MakingSociety: Which of your machines is your favorite and why?

James Coleman: Each new machine I make becomes my favorite, but I recently made a 5 axis (4 axis with rotary table) hot wire cutter that was really fun to use. The geometry you can produce with it was mind bending, I cut wacky parts that could thread together.

MakingSociety: Do you have advice and tips for makers prototyping with cardboard?

James Coleman: Not all cardboards are created equally! They have vastly different strength and stiffness, keep things simple.

"Apple" CNC: a CNC drawing robot made out of an Apple iMac packaging box.

“Apple” CNC: a CNC drawing robot made out of an Apple iMac packaging box.

MakingSociety: Do you see any social or/and commercial applications for your modular machines that make? Under which license are they placed?

James Coleman: The work is the combined efforts of a whole bunch of people and is released as open source. I would love to see how the machines can be incorporated into K-12 education for teaching STEM content. It’s on the to do list. Really I hope it helps people use automation to pursue their own interests, projects, and curiosities.

MakingSociety: Where can the community share their own modular machines and replicas build from your instructions?

James Coleman: I have been putting tutorials and mmtm results on , a project documentation website that is really easy to use and makes everything look nice. It would be great to see projects, software, and configurations shared between users.

Find all instructions and documentation to build your own modular machines that make on website.


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