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Fischertechnik

fischertechnik (the lowercase is deliberately used in the trademarked name) is a brand of construction toy. It was invented by Artur Fischer and is produced by Artur Fischer GmbH & Co.KG (fischerwerke), at Waldachtal, Germany. Fans often refer to fischertechnik as FT or ft. It is used in education for teaching about simple machines, as well as motorization and mechanisms. The company also offers computer interface technology which can be used to teach the theory of automation and robotics.

The company is a German manufacturer of fasteners, and the original fischertechnik set was intended as a Christmas (1964) novelty gift for engineers and buyers at industrial clients. The gifts proved popular, so for Christmas, 1965, the company introduced its first building set for retail sale in Germany, in part, it has been claimed, to foster education and interest in technology and science among the young. By about 1970, the construction sets were being sold in the United States at upscale toy retailers such as F.A.O. Schwartz.

The basic building blocks were of channel-and-groove design, manufactured of hard nylon. Basic blocks came in 15x15x15 and 15x15x30 millimeter sizes. A peg on one side of each block could be attached into a channel on any of the other five sides of a similar block, producing a tightly-fitting assembly that could assume almost any shape.

The original blocks were characteristically gray with red accessories such as wheels and angled blocks. Electric motors, power sources, and gears were soon added to mobilize models. Additional building pieces such as struts were added in “statics” sets, allowing the construction of realistic-looking bridges and tower cranes. To teach the physics of such models, some sets included measuring devices so that trigonometric vectors could be calculated and tested.

The early sets were sophisticated and were often used by engineers to teach and simulate industrial robotics. This use was advanced by the addition of electrical and electronic components such as microswitches, magnetic-sensing reed switches, and photocells, which sensed position and provided input to motors. With the basic electronic block (Grundbaustein) which contained an Operational amplifier Schmitt Triggers and Delay circuits could be built. In the late 1970’s, electronic binary-logic modules (AND, NAND, OR, NOR, Flip-flops) were introduced so that models could make some branching decisions. Pneumatic devices were made available to provide gripping ability. By the late 1980’s, process-control CPU modules were added so that sequences movements could be preprogrammed and executed, first using “Lucky-logic” (LLWIN) software.

About the same time, LEGO was expanding into its Expert, Technic, and Mindstorms lines. The Mindstorms product followed the lead set by fischertechnik into sensing and process control, although the LEGO products never acquired quite the technical and flexibility level of the fischertechnik. However, a new Mindstorms product to be introduced in 2006 may finally surpass fischertechnik in some technical features, such as color recognition.

As LEGO became more sophisticated with its Mindstorms line, fischertechnik attempted to move down into less technical, more “fun”, building kits for younger ages. The parts were molded from more colorful plastics, and small building sets were developed for simple models such as vehicles. However, the Fischer products were more expensive and had far fewer parts that replicated everyday objects than LEGO. Especially in the United States, fischertechnik never achieved parity with LEGO in the general construction toy market, and FT is still more positioned as a product for schools, engineers, and hobbyists. The sets are not as available at retail as LEGO products in the United States, or even in Europe.

By 2006, fischertechnik sets were available for robotic process control using “Robo-pro” software (the successor to Lucky-logic), on-board process controllers with flash memory, infrared and radio-frequency remote control, and pneumatic-activation. Robotic models could follow preprogrammed routes or lines on the floor, sense obstructions and change course, detect and move objects, and simulate everyday devices such as vending machines, passenger elevator systems, and traffic-control lights.

FT sets have won various educational and industry awards.

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