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Focus On: Ian Norton and Amazeballs, the Collaborative Marble Run Project

Gareth Halfacree

Our friendly journalist Gareth Halfacree recently attended the Manchester MakeFest on our behalf, talking to the thronging crowds find out what's hot in the maker world at the minute. This series of Focus On features takes a look at some of the event's exhibitors, finding out what they're up to and what makes them tick.

A headlining feature of the Manchester MakeFest, Amazeballs takes up a stand all by itself - and with good reason. A complex modular marble run, featuring shiny silver ball-bearings constantly whizzing through its varied chambers, Amazeballs is representative of what the maker community can do when it works together. "It's a collaborative project between various different hackspaces," explains Ian Norton, of the Lancaster and Morecambe Makers (LAMM), as he gestures at the wooden boxes assembled on the tables. "Each of these boxes here has been built by a different hackspace or a different person within that hackspace, and then there's a ball lift at the end to shift it back to the beginning."

The ball lift dominates the layout, a clever Archimedes screw which lifts the marbles from the exit at the bottom of the run up to the beginning, allowing it to run entirely autonomously. At least, that was the case for the first day of the event; as Ian speaks to us on on day two, however, he's forming an integral part of the machine himself by taking the place of the marble lift - picking the balls up by hand and placing them at the beginning of the run - owing to an unforeseen glitch typical of event showpieces. "Yesterday the ball lift was running all day, and what's happened is it's roughed the wood up at the bottom," Ian explains as he reaches down for another ball. "Basically, the balls are now sticking against the roughed-up wood. We're going to have to address that with some sandpaper and just try and get it smooth and get it running again, because at the moment I'm having to move the balls by hand, which is a bit of a pain!"

Thankfully, by the afternoon the project was once again running as intended, thanks to the application of sandpaper and hot-glue to its various parts. Frankly, it's a testament to the skills of those involved that the marble run works at all. "Bob from Manchester Hackspace came up with this idea, and decided that it would be a good idea to do as a collaborative project so all we had was the footprint of the box," Ian explains, detailing the restricted nature of the project which allowed each participant to really put their own mark on the creation. "The footprint of the box was what we would go on for where the ball goes in and where the ball comes out and everything else, and what you do in your box is up to you."

There are numerous boxes making up the finished run, including one with a laser-cut spiral which deposits the balls into a central hole for transfer to the agreed-upon exit spot and the entry point of the next box in line, another featuring an acrylic tube decorated with fairy lights, a bagatelle-style pin board, and of course the lift and conveyor system. It's an amazing setup, and one which attracts a crowd throughout both days of the MakeFest. "It's been really positive," Ian proudly proclaims. "Lots of people going 'wow, that's really cool.' The kids love it, we've seen several kids with amazed faces following the balls through. It's been really good."

More information on the Lancaster and Morecambe Makers and their hackspace in the centre of Lancaster is available from the official website.

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