Matthew Kaney at ITP

Concept: Paper Automata


Paper Automaton Illustration

As a starting point in my Automata class, I’m exploring the concept of two-dimensional paper automata. I’m drawing inspiration from the types of articulated paper puppets often used for shadow puppetry or animation. Because they lie essentially flat, I’m interested in the mechanical challenges posed by this form. I’m also interested in cut paper (either laser cut or die cut) as an especially accessible form of digital fabrication, and am curious to see how sophisticated of mechanisms can be produced in 2d paper with these technologies.

I’m envisioning a series of animated figures who could perform as part of a larger narrative. The illustration above describes a modular system for these figures, where the figures could be designed as self-contained paper constructions with an exposed gear. This paper construction could then be slotted in to a machine box, where an internal motor and gear would connect with the paper gear and drive the motion.

As an initial experiment with the material (and as a means to get comfortable with common mechanisms, I prototyped two mechanisms in card stock. In order to create joints, I considered various approaches, but ultimately settled on a circle of paper cut into a star shape, with the points of those stars folded through matching holes in other components and then glued down. I started with a series of crossed levers (motion No. 144 in 507 Mechanical Motions) in order to get the joints working.

Scissor Levers

Scissor Motion

Overall, the prototype worked quite well. The joints were strong, but allowed full motion with minimal friction. When kept flat (either holding by hand or by resting on a tabletop), the paper had plenty of strength for the mechanism to work. However, if I wasn’t careful, the paper had a tendency to bend, which completely wrecked the motion. This was clearly pushing the size limits for the card stock I was using. For better structure, I’ll probably try a combination of stiffer paper and smaller individual components in the future.

The crank mechanism (motion No. 92), worked as well, if not better. After some trimming, the motion was smooth, and the main structural piece was the only piece that tried bending. With wheels, cranks and levers working, the next major challenge will be gears. Gears are fundamentally three-dimensional in their operation, so the question stands whether the design can be modified into shapes that consistently interleave while still lying flat.


Circular to Linear Motion