If nothing else, 3M is an impressive company for the sheer breadth of products it offers. According to Wikipedia, it makes more than 55,000 products, “including adhesives, abrasives, laminates, passive fire protection, dental and orthodontic products, electronic materials, medical products, car-care products, electronic circuits, and optical films.”
What binds all of those products together? Science.
As part of a new marketing campaign, 3M decided to highlight some of its products while composing a sort of visual love letter to the science that inspires them. What they came up with was The Brand Machine, a wonderful contraption that uses 10 different 3M products as gears in an insanely convoluted Rube Goldberg machine.
The Brand Machine was designed by Hamster Wheel, a company founded by Jason Engbrecht, an associate professor of physics at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. At St. Olaf, Engbrecht has spent the past four years leading teams of college students in Rube Goldberg competitions, winning first place twice.
We asked Engbrecht if he could give us some tips on the key to designing a good Rube Goldberg machine. Here’s what he told us.
A Rube Goldberg machine is only as good as the sum of its parts, so its important that those parts be interesting and wacky, says Engbrecht. In the case of the 3M Rube Goldberg, Hamster Wheel was given around 16 products to chose from, including audio tape, microscopic glass spheres, protective face masks, and rolls of packing tape.
All of these products were ones 3M was already trying to highlight as part of their “3M Science. Applied to Life” marketing camapign. At the end of the day, Hamster Wheel pared this list of products down to around 10 good ones to construct their Rube Goldberg machine, selecting only the products that could be used in visually compelling ways.
A good Rube Goldberg is all about timing. “It has to process slow enough that people can follow what’s happening, but quick enough so that people don’t get bored,” Engbrecht says. In Hamster Wheel’s experience, that means each stage’s sweet spot is between five to ten seconds. A Rube Goldberg also can’t be too cramped, because it makes it too hard to follow what’s going on.
“You need to make it obvious for the eye to follow what’s going on,” says Engbrecht. “It’s important to remember that it can be very difficult for people who don’t already know these machines to see the next step coming.”
A true Rube Goldberg purist will insist that a machine has to work all in one go. If you’re filming it, you can’t splice together two takes: it has to work flawlessly at least once. According to Engbrecht, even getting a Rube Goldberg to work once can be a challenge: some of the machines Hamster Wheel has made took 40 tries to get one workable take from. If the Rube Goldberg keeps on keeling over, though, you need to simplify.
Even so, the best Rube Goldberg’s don’t just work well enough to be filmed once. They’re resettable and repeatable: machines reliable enough that they always work flawlessly, no matter how convoluted their mechanisms. What makes the 3M Rube Goldberg so special, Engbrecht says, is that it was reliable enough to operate live. Hamster Wheel took their Rube Goldberg to 3M’s headquarters, showing it off to audiences of up to 100 employees at a time. They did 20 shows in all, and each one went off without a hitch,
One thing Engbrecht says is that when you’re working on a Rube Goldberg over a period of several months, you can get too close to it. You lose sight of what’s exciting about it, what’s boring, what’s badly paced, and what’s confusing. “It’s always tough to gauge the reaction of a Rube Goldberg ahead of time, he says. “The fun thing about showing it live is you get immediate feedback, and it becomes very obvious what’s surprising, and where your problems are.”
In the case of the 3M Rube Goldberg, Hamster Wheel wanted to finish with a fluorescent cascade of Post-it Notes. The only problem? Post-it Notes weren’t part of the original inventory of 3M products Hamster Wheel was given to work with. “We decided: Post-it Notes are the most iconic 3M product,” Engbrecht remembers. “So we went to them and asked, can we use Post-it Notes anyway? They thought it sounded like fun, and so we chose the Post-it cascade for the end, because it’s big and spectacular.” After all, it just isn’t a Rube Goldberg without a big finish.