A new museum exhibit in Chicago makes manufacturing look cool.

When someone mentions anything about a "toy maker" this time of the year, most people envision the jolly old man with the white beard who lives at the North Pole. Recently, a few of his trusty elves were spotted in Chicago learning a few new tricks of the trade, such as high-speed automated toy assembly.

A permanent exhibit entitled ToyMaker 3000 has quickly become one of the most popular displays at the Museum of Science and Industry. It features a 2,000-square-foot automated assembly line that can build 300 toy tops per hour. The unique exhibit encourages visitors to learn more about manufacturing and tempts kids to consider careers in engineering.

A team of designers and curators spent more than 4 years researching and creating ToyMaker 3000. A handful of industry experts, including editors from ASSEMBLY magazine, participated in the project.

The exhibit features eight interactive stations and 12 assembly robots. State-of-the-art equipment on display highlights numerous vendors, including Adept Technology (Livermore, CA), Algus Packaging Inc. (DeKalb, IL), Branson Ultrasonics Corp. (Danbury, CT), Cognex Corp. (Natick, MA), Dorner Manufacturing Corp. (Hartland, WI), Fanuc Robotics America Inc. (Rochester Hills, MI), Illinois Tool Works Inc. (ITW, Glenview, IL), Motoman Inc. (West Carrollton, OH), PHD Inc. (Fort Wayne, IN), Rockwell Automation Inc. (Milwaukee) and Vibracraft Inc. (South Beloit, IL). Cox Automation Systems (Bloomingdale, IL) served as systems integrator on the project, which blends education, entertainment, fun and function.

"The ToyMaker 3000 exhibit represents an automation project that rivals any assembly line in the world," says Andy Glaser, district manager at Fanuc Robotics. "It helps young people better understand the types of skills and benefits that make up the very fabric of today's computer-driven manufacturing environment."

"Being part of the exhibit allows us to help showcase cutting-edge manufacturing techniques," adds Paul Gustafson, vice president of sales and marketing at Cox Automation Systems.

The $5.7 million exhibit encourages visitors to interact with machines, tools and computers as they learn how a highly automated assembly line works. They follow a toy top through the entire manufacturing process, starting with parts delivery and ending with packaging. The Gravitron top is marketed by Tedco Inc. (Hagerstown, IN). Parts, such as a gyroscope, are concealed in a plastic "space ship." The gravity defying toy is activated by pulling a T-handle.

When they enter the display, visitors walk past a series of educational panels on the wall. One panel says: "How do you take a great idea on paper and turn it into a great product in the real world? Automation helps companies manufacture products faster and less expensively with a high degree of precision and nearly infinite repeatability. All kinds of things are made with computer-aided design and automation: toy tops, toasters, televisions, even toothbrushes!"

Another panel says: "There are many steps along the way and there are many different types of people who are important to each step. The most important components of any assembly line are its people. The roles that people play in automation are very important. Millions of people all over the world are employed in automation as designers, technicians, suppliers, software developers, programmers and engineers."

Visitors then encounter three large flat-panel video screens, each held by a six-axis robot. The robots perform a choreographed "dance" to a variety of music. They also move the monitors around while the videos show cars, cell phones, crayons and other products being assembled. In addition, people talk about the human side of automation and discuss careers in manufacturing engineering.

Moving along the outer wall of the display, visitors come across a small "design office," which gives them a hands-on look at the computer-aided design process. The display also includes a rapid-prototyping machine.

Around the corner, the concept of "assembling the assembly line" is introduced. The display emphasizes how people play an important behind-the-scenes role in automation. It features a pair of robots programmed to work together by drawing visitor-chosen pictures-one robot holds a drawing board while the other draws with a pen. Another interactive robot plays a variation of the "shell game," using different-colored golf balls that are only visible under ultraviolet light. The robot shuffles the golf balls while visitors attempt to identify the correct order.

After the world of automation has been introduced as cool, clean, smart and safe-as opposed to the misperception that manufacturing is dirty, dull and dangerous-visitors get to watch how a toy top is assembled with state-of-the-art feeder bowls, robots, conveyors, cameras, grippers, sensors, ultrasonic welders, laser part markers and packaging equipment. For a $3 fee, visitors can purchase a customized top and watch it being made. After inserting dollar bills into a kiosk, visitors use a touchscreen to enter a 14-character name and select their color choice-green, orange and purple tops are available.

Visitors insert a bar-coded job ticket into a scanner, receive a work order and then follow a numbered pallet that contains their personalized top. Large LED screens positioned above each of the 13 workstations in the L-shaped, glass-enclosed assembly line tell visitors what is happening.

The first stop is the pallet loading area. Four vibratory feeder bowls sort the various colors of Gravitron housings into eight conveyor lanes. The parts are sorted using a color-sensitive machine vision system. A pick-and-place SCARA robot selects upper and lower housings by color and aligns them onto a conveyorized pallet.

The next workstation uses blow-fed placement tooling to position very tiny ball bearings inside the plastic housings. The ball bearings allow the center portion of the top to spin. In addition, a substation places a retainer ring inside the upper housing to keep the hub in place.

The third stop is the flywheel subassembly workstation, which features a cam indexing rotary dial. At each stop of the table, a metal flywheel ring is crimped to a plastic-geared hub. In addition, a metal spindle is inserted in the center. The subassembly is then flipped and placed inside the upper housing.

Next, feeder bowls supply clear plastic rings that act as a bumper around the edge of the top. A pneumatic device picks up a ring and places it onto the upper housing, then flips over the empty lower housing and places it on top.

At the fifth workstation, the upper and lower housing are ultrasonically welded together. At the next station, the buyer's name is laser-etched onto the top, in addition to the date and the museum's name.

The next stop is the repositioning station, where a rotary flip device picks the top from its traveling pallet, flips it right-side up, and places it back onto the pallet.

At the eighth workstation, random-colored plastic tips approach a servo-driven pick-and-place robot equipped with a camera. The tips are sorted into buffer tracks where they are inserted into the top by another pick-and-place robot. Next, the tip is ultrasonically welded to the upper housing.

Quality control is performed at the 10th workstation. A burst of air is blown into the center hub of each top, causing its gears to spin. An optical sensor detects if the top is spinning. A computer screen indicates whether the top receives a "pass" or "fail."

At the 11th station, a robot picks the top from its pallet and prepares it for packaging, along with a ripcord and a pedestal. Next, the components are wrapped in a clear blister pack-after a two-sided sheet of instructions and product information is inserted-and placed in a storage area. By inserting their bar-coded job ticket, visitors retrieve their customized top with the help of a pick-and-place robot. A line on the package insert reads "Assembled at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, using state of the art automated manufacturing."

The nonstop production process takes less than 5 minutes from start to finish. Tops that are not customized are rapidly disassembled, placed in bins and recycled back into the system, ready to start the assembly process all over again.