Rapid Prototyping with Laser Cut Cardboard Wafers

I recently wrote about some creative ways cardboard can be used in the building process, covering techniques for cutting, shaping and combining the material, along with the many tools that can be used to help in this process.

But I sometimes find, particularly with smaller children, that cutting cardboard from scratch can be a barrier to design in a couple of ways. First, when given a blank page (or cardboard sheet in this case), not every child is ready to bring their imagination to life. They need inspiration, examples, or prompts. I equate it to story starters, like “Once upon a time…” or “There once was a girl who…” or “It was a dark and stormy night…”

The second reason cutting the cardboard can be a barrier is merely due to hand strength. Even with the newest innovative tools available to them, some students struggle with the actual act of cutting. This can bring about frustration, and while some of that is good for the soul, it can also be a turn off to creativity, especially when the time is limited.

For both of these reasons, I felt the need to create ready-made cardboard “story starters” so that students could quickly design, assemble and test their creations. I cut these wafers on our school laser cutter so that lines are precise. I use them in combination with a large assortment of other materials, in addition to just plain cardboard.

To get what I needed, I hopped into Adobe Illustrator and started with some simple designs. I was inspired by Katie Henry’s work at Birdbrain Tech, where I saw her use simple cardboard squares with a line cut from one side to center, so learners could interlock these flat pieces into 3-dimensional blocks on the way to integrating robotics into creatures they built themselves. Since I was in the middle of my own Hummingbird robotics unit, I began with just that.

After creating one kind of square, I thought it might help to enable users to connect to multiple sides of the square, or to the corners for that matter. Then I moved on to circles. I also needed longer, flat pieces, that might serve as a creature’s spine, or long legs. Legs? If they have legs, then they are going to need feet. So feet came next. And if you have feet, you need hands! Along the way, I added small holes for LEDs, pipe cleaners, straws, or brads.

As you can imagine, the possibilities for different shapes are limitless. However, like LEGO® bricks, my goal is not to zap the creativity out of my students, but rather foster it by leaving the door open to more thought and imagination, to more that the learner can do on her own. I just needed a kickstart.

I must admit, however, that even as I write this, I am thinking of more shapes to add to the library.

Here are some examples (in PDF format) which you can download to try out. I’ve made them in two colors, and I cut the black lines first. This method allows me to cut the smaller parts precisely, then finish off with each shape’s perimeter.

Cardboard Wafer Designs

Squares and CirclesSmall squares and circlesSpinesFeet, and Hands

To see these in action, here’s a quick video:

I’d love to hear from you if you decide to use these in your projects. If you’ve thought of other ways to reuse ready-found material like cardboard, I would love to hear that too.


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