Prototyping and the Wintergatan Marble Machine

April 09, 2018

The Wintergatan Marble Machine has a special place in my family’s heart. For over a year my son would come into my office every day and ask me to “watch musical instrument”, which was his way of asking to see the Marble Machine. Even now when I fire up the video my son will come racing from across the house to watch this machine birth its magic.

For those who aren’t familiar, the Wintergatan Marble Machine is an enormous mechanical device filled with over 2000 marbles raised up by a conveyor belt and dropped on a xylophone, drum contact mics, and bass guitar. It’s raw, creaky, clumsy, and beautiful.

Founding member of Wintergatan and the pilot of the Marble Machine, Martin Molin, is now documenting the process of building the next version of the Marble Machine, on the Wintergatan YouTube channel. This version of the Marble Machine has the ambitious goal of going on tour and performing more than one song in a single show. “Whereas the original Marble Machine was a viral success, it was a mechanical failure,” says Molin. To achieve that goal, the new Marble Machine must be more modular and efficient in its design.

This time around Molin is taking a different approach to building the machine. It focuses a lot around CNC milling and 3D printing parts and (if you read my blog, you might have guessed) prototyping. Lots of prototyping.

“With the first Marble Machine I just started to build… I ended up building the same things 10 times because I didn’t do any prototypes.” – Martin Molin (Source: YouTube)

I love a good prototyping story. Prototyping allows Molin to experiment and prove ideas work before committing them to his design. He can hone his idea cheaply with the raw materials before bringing his idea over to CAD. Unless I’m misinterpreting, design comes after prototyping. And then in the design phase, he focuses on getting things right. Taking time to consider the whole picture.

“A big part of our monkey brain wants immediate reward at all times. I’m now trying to keep that part of my monkey brain at bay by not doing the more instantly rewarding, real-world building, and focusing on really getting the CAD drawings down and perfect. I’m sure this approach is more efficient and will speed up the whole building process.” – Martin Molin (Source: YouTube)

I love the sentiment of slowing down. Avoid the temptation to start the real-world building and spend time getting the details right in design will ultimately speed up the building process.

I think the prototyping helps Molin understand the medium of plywood as well. One neat technique he’s unlocked is milling down a few millimeters to the darker glue layer of the plywood. This gives some pieces depth with a two-tone look and feel that can be created cheaply without introducing too much work or another process like painting or staining.

The foundation of CNC milling and 3D printing for production is also a very smart choice for this project. If parts break while on tour, as long as Molin has a thumb-drive with 3D files on it, they can be replaced in minutes at any makerspace.

Another neat inspiration I’ve picked up from Molin is how he sets up his workshop. He spends time knolling objects on his table and mise en place-style preparation for the day’s work. My physical and digital desktops are disgusting. I can only imagine how much more relaxing work would be if I spent the first 30 minutes each day cleaning up and preparing my workspace for the day.

I don’t know if Martin Molin will ever read this, but I want to say thank you on behalf of myself because I’ve gotten great joy out of watching your prototyping process; and on behalf of my family to whom you’ve brought hours of joy through music.