Electrical engineer Charles Sharman noticed several years ago that as they got older, the children he taught at Sunday School tended to migrate from Lego and other building toys to video games. He wanted them to keep creating, so he started a company called Seven:Twelve Engineering and began designing a building toy that could hold the attention of these older kids. That toy is called Crossbeams, and it can be used to design and assemble a huge range of toys – including big, detailed, moving cars and helicopters.
Crossbeams are small, stiff, white tube-shaped bits of solid plastic. Some are curved or bent at one end. Others are completely straight. There are also special pieces like gears and wheels, and different kinds of joints. Crossbeams join together in two steps: first with a typical male/female connection in which one slides into the other, then with a ring that you twist 45 degrees to secure the joint against different kinds of stress and to allow your constructions to withstand up to 20 lb (9 kg) of normal force.
Each Crossbeam piece can be connected in any of eight different orientations, and there are over 40 piece types (including the joints), so there's a lot of flexibility in what you can produce. Having said that, most frames designed so far can be created from less than half that.
You can buy kits with an instruction set for a single model, Lego style, but Sharman suggests you mix and match pieces from different kits when building – it's more about creativity than assembly. The kits that are available are broken into 10 categories: animals, cars and trucks, construction, helicopters, motorcycles, planes, ships, space, structures, and trees. Fully assembled, these range from small – around 100 pieces total and measuring a foot or less in each direction – to huge – a 2,242-piece model of the US Capitol building is 4.6 feet (1.4 m) wide while a 1,027-piece Saturn V rocket is 7.5 feet (2.3 m) tall.
If you're not into experimenting by hand, you can design your own Crossbeam models in a virtual environment – a 3D modelling program called Crossbeams Modeller – and share it with the community or order your pieces to make it real.
Far from being just a children's toy, Sharman and his team have thought up more practical uses for Crossbeams as well. The product website shows off examples of the interlocking pieces being used to create an elevated trash holder, a book prop for hands-free reading, a rotating Scrabble table, and more. Just as Lego has become a favorite prototyping tool of many engineers and industrial designers, Crossbeams looks as though it has the versatility and ease of use to quickly test out all sorts of ideas.
Price varies wildly depending on what pieces (and how many) you're looking to get. A 500-piece assortment will set you back US$117.09, while the 123-piece Jet Fighter Kit costs $26.02. A kit for a massive 1,482-piece model of the Brooklyn Bridge costs $266.03. And in case you were wondering, Crossbeams only come in white.
Crossbeams Modeller, meanwhile, is free to download and use, so you might like to start there in seeing what Crossbeams are capable of.