The construction toy BionicTOYS aims to teach children about the laws of nature in a playful way. The start-up founded by product designer Marcel Pasternak in 2016 presented its first education sets at this year's Spielwarenmesse®. But that’s not the end of it. In the think tank in Berlin, they are already working on a BionicTOYS humanoid.
Mr Pasternak, why is nature always one step ahead of us?
Marcel Pasternak: Nature has been around for millions of years, long before humans. So, it has had enough time to optimise its processes and solve the problems that we are dealing with today. We just have to take a really close look in order to find answers; these won’t exist for everything but certainly for a great deal. It applies whether you’re talking about renewable energies or more efficient fluid mechanics.
You are a product designer. What fascinates you about bionics – this hybrid between biology and technology – that made you develop a construction toy that draws inspiration from nature for your thesis?
M. P.: During stressful periods, I find peace in nature, especially in the woods. It's where I observe roots, foliage, moss and shapes that don't follow the rules of being squares, right angles or circles. You simply don’t find shapes like that in nature. It seems as though there is an order to these organic shapes that we human beings, with our rational minds, don’t understand. This is a source of great fascination for me.
In what way?
M. P.: Just take a tree, for example. If you look at it in detail, you notice how perfect it is. In contrast to our high-rise buildings, it isn’t moulded out of rigid concrete but, instead, is made up of a number of flexible fibres so that it doesn’t topple over as soon as the wind starts to blow. That was the starting point for further research and the basis for my master’s thesis, for which I developed and patented a rubber-like building brick.
You wrote that construction toys are not just a way to pass the time.
M. P.: Through play, we learn through sheer enjoyment and curiosity without noticing it. Play is the foundation on which our knowledge is built. My first experiences with engineering, static and the lever principle were things I got through playing with construction toys. Only later when I was in school did I learn to calculate everything precisely in physics or maths; as a child, it was just fun. I believe that is also the reason why I became a product designer in the first place and developed the building bricks because, in this role as "creator", I am not just a consumer who plays with the finished game pieces, I am creating my own world.
Your patented Flex-bricks use the Fin Ray® effect. Can you explain to us what lies behind this?
M. P.: In the Fin Ray® effect, discovered by the Berlin-based bionics specialists Leif Kneise and Rudolf Bannasch, the tail fin of the osseous fish reacts atypically to lateral pressure. Rather than pushing away from the finger, it moves towards it instead. We call that the Fin Ray® effect and it is used in different inventions, such as adaptive grippers. This effect can be recreated for your own constructions with the flexible bricks from BionicTOYS.
What material are your patented Flex-bricks made of?
M. P.: "Brick" is, of course, not the right term when you look at BionicTOYS’ flexible strand. In spite of this, I had to use this term in the patent application. That alone shows the great need for innovation to create a new terminology. BionicTOYS are made from TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) with a FC component, that is, with a food contact certification. You could even put them in your mouth without any need to worry. A similar material is used in the seals for food storage containers.
Are the strands also particularly long-lasting? Sustainability has become a big topic in the toy industry!
M. P.: BionicTOYS are not disposable products but, rather, are high quality building brick sets that can be passed down to the next generation with a clear conscience, just as you do with LEGO®. We are currently working on a parallel project in Sri Lanka. I got to see natural rubber production while on a delegation trip there with GIZ, the German Society for International Cooperation, and we want to promote this with a bigger project. We intend for the flexible bricks from BionicTOYS to be a part of this project but that is as much as I want to give away.
The bricks can be combined with LEGO® Technic or similar building brick systems. What is the result of this?
M. P.: BionicTOYS was previously an add-on to existing building brick systems. In the meantime, it has grown into its own independent system. We now produce all bricks, including both the flexible and hard perforated beams. Our theme is nature, zoology, botany; that is our focus. In the initial stage, children learn in a playful way to recreate shapes from nature, such as a shark with the Fin Ray® effect. In the second stage, they learn to abstract if they want to build a gripper out of a shark fin.
You presented your new STEM sets in the Innovation made in Germany pavilion at the Spielwarenmesse® this year. What was the response like to the education sets?
M. P.: The BionicTOYS product launch at the Spielwarenmesse® in Nuremberg surpassed our expectations. The number of pre-orders, including international ones, demonstrates this. The trade fair made it clear to us that, as a small and young enterprise, we ought to have an international footprint. It was a great trade fair with lots of promising contacts.
BionicTOYS has been financed up until now through crowdfunding. Have you now found the right partner in Clementoni? What tipped the scales in favour of the Italians?
M. P.: From August 2020, BionicTOYS will have a retail presence. Represented in Europe by our new partner Clementoni, BionicTOYS will be brought to the market under the separate product name "Dynamix". We contacted several candidate companies and tried to conclude a licensing agreement. In the end, we opted for the Italians because they negotiated with us very fairly and on an equal footing. Clementoni is now our exclusive licensee for the European retail market. At the same time, we are busy trying to enter the education market and the licence for this market is still available. We are also looking for partners for the American and Asian regions.
What are you currently working on?
M. P.: So far, the flexible bricks in our constructions serve as muscles, tendons and ligaments. Electronic components, i.e. sensors, are now being added to this. These read off the muscle contractions in your own body and translate them into motor movements. From this, children learn how the musculature in the human arm is structured and what the respective muscles are called. They can build their own gripping prosthetics out of BionicTOYS and control them in real time using hand movements. The humanoid, i.e. the fusion of man and machine, is no longer such a distant reality.
Mr Pasternak, thank you for talking to us.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Spielwarenmesse eG.
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