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Living With Machines

December 8, 2022

A Design & Create Project

Hand Drawn Pixels came to us with an idea and problem that needed solving for the exhibition they were designing for Leeds City Museum. Their new exhibition was missing a captivating entrance piece to engage children. It had to match their brand guidelines and be a tangible object the children could interact with. But most importantly it needed a visible mechanism within. It’s an educational device to engage children in the museums ‘Living With Machines’ exhibition.

Co-curated by The British Library and Leeds City Museum, the Living With Machines exhibition reveals the surprising parallels between the Industrial Revolution and todays ‘big tech’. From sewing machines to potato peelers, to handwritten notes by Charles Dickens. 

In the past the museum’s entrance hall would be decorated with vinyls, an affordable and simple way to make a space colourful and draw the eye towards the exhibition entrance. Vinyl, however, is nowhere near as captivating as the machine we knew we could create.

Our starting point was the concept art the exhibition’s graphic designer, Tom, of Hand Drawn Pixels, proposed; a colourful box with a moving scenery that calls to machinery through history, with a mechanism you see through peep holes and windows.

Leeds City Museum were unsure on their budget. They’re not knee high in saw dust like us so naturally wouldn't know how much this scale of project would cost. Our first step was to create 3 options, each a different cost, complexity and time scale. Once the museum chose their option we got to work.

Once we have the green light to start making, the client can take a step back and be assured that we have it all in hand. Usually when creating a new product or machine, it takes iterations of prototypes and testing that are time consuming but vital. Research, prototyping and testing is our specialism and something that our clients can trust us to do well. 

Giant cogs aren’t seen a lot in machinery nowadays but are a perfect way to show children the components of machines. We commenced research into the mathematics of machinery. The distance between the teeth of the cogs affects the movements of a connected component; the correct calculations are essential to making the machine work. 

General Manager Liam and whiz when it comes to 3D models created a digital plan of the build that could be refined and tested. Doing thorough planning and research means we know if a machine will work before we even turn on the CNC router. 

Another challenge of this project wasn’t just making the machine move, but making the internal mechanism attractive and clear enough - we can’t hide behind the cover for this one! It has to be flawless inside and out. 

We made a dry run, cut and assembled the pieces to make sure they would fit together. We chose mostly to use birch ply because it’s the most robust, a familiar material for children’s toys and something we can alter by hand.  As soon as the mechanism was in motion, we clocked an imperfection. The fog coming from the chimneys wasn’t rising and falling smoothly enough. Of course, we could have left it as it was - the mechanism technically worked, it was just a bit rough. But when you put this much time and energy into each individual component, less than perfect just won’t do. We were able to dismantle the machine and correct the problem.

Once it was assembled and working perfectly, we took it apart again. Remember the graphic designer who gave us the brief? We worked with them to interpret their colour palette to 18 standard RAL paint colours that we painted and sprayed onto the mechanism. Getting a high quality finish takes time. We can use software to speed up the iteration and testing process but when it comes to painting, there’s no way around the time it takes.

Once assembled and finalised, our resident Little Helper gave it a test. She gave a giggly review of ‘fantabulous’ so we packed it up and delivered it to Leeds City Museum. 

We’re not specialist mechanics. The museum came to us because they knew we would do the research and planning to create the mechanism they needed, even if we knew nothing about the process at the start of the project.

We’re also not a hire-a-CNC company. The museum didn’t have the time or expertise to design their own mechanism and get it cut. It’s our specialism to do the research, the testing, prototyping, cutting, assembling and finishing. 

Living with Machines is open until January 8th at Leeds City Museum.

If you have an idea for a project and would like our expertise, get in touch. Whether it's a passion project or a problem that needs solving, our team of experienced designers and technicians can make it happen.


Hand Drawn Pixels design and digital studio -

Leeds City Museum -

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