What is an automata? Marvel at this DIY machine in motion!

What is an automata? Check out this simple way to make a simple machine! 

Automata-who? An automata is a playful way to explore simple machine elements such as cams, levers, and linkages, while creating mechanical sculpture. They’ve been around for hundreds of years, with stories about automatons all the way back in Greek mythology! You might have one in your own home if you have a moving bird inside a cuckoo clock. 

What is a simple machine? A simple machine is a non-motorized device that changes the direction or magnitude of a force, for example, an inclined plane, wedge, lever, pulley, or automata.

Today you will be working with Cams and Cam Followers which is a form of the wheel and axel. Rather than making a bicycle wheel turn, we will be creating more of a gear-driven movement.

This is a really fun Maker activity that you can try at home to help understand what is an automata. Use this project to explore simple machines, like wheels and axles, and your critical thinking skills and creativity to make your project move. Let’s get making!

Materials you will need:

  • Cardboard frame 
  • Cardboard scraps 
  • Drinking straw
  • Scissors 
  • Skewer sticks
  • Foam sheet 
  • Washer
  • Masking tape
  • Hot Glue Gun 
  • Materials for decoration


Step 1:

Add support to your frame.

  • Cut triangles out of the cardboard scraps and tape them into each corner of the frame for support.
add support to your automata frame

Step 2:

Plan out your automata. Think about what you want your automata to depict. Some start by choosing their motion first and going from there. 

  • Round and Round
  • Up/Down and Round and Round 
  • Back and Forth and Up and Down
    • Pay close attention to the placements of the cam and cam follower

Step 3:

Create the cams 

  • Draw your cam and cam follower in the upper left-hand corner of the foam sheet. 
  • Make sure to draw it as close to the edge as possible
  • It’s important to cut the cams smoothly and make sure your cam follower is a little bigger than your cam.
choose a motion your automata (1)

Step 4:

Get a handle on your automata

  • Cut a rectangular piece of cardboard and hot glue the cardboard to the skewer
add a handle

Step 5:

Add the axle to the frame 

  • Put your cam on the axle inside the frame. 
  • Start the holes in the frame using the nail, and make sure the cam clears the top and bottom of the frame.
add an axel

Step 6:

Add the cam follower

  • Poke a hole in the top of the frame where you want your cam follower to be located. 
  • Cut the straw so it’s about 4 cm long, and then insert it into the hole you just made. 
  • Hot glue the straw in place.
  • Put a skewer stick through the straw and attach your cam follower to the bottom end of the stick. 
  • Glue the cam follower in place.
add an axel

Step 7:

Test it! 

  • Adjust your cam under the cam follower until you get the motion you like. 
  • If the cam follower does not fall on the cam, attach a washer to add a little weight. 
  • If the cam does not stay in place on the axle, add a small dab of hot glue to hold the cam in place.
test your automata

Step 8:

Last, but not least, it's time to decorate your automata! 

Design your automata

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