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Oh my cube!

By Nicole Casal Moore

The concept: “Trickier than we thought”

College of Engineering students demonstrate the giant Rubik's Cube on North Campus April 13.

College of Engineering students demonstrate the giant Rubik’s Cube on North Campus April 13.

A giant Rubik’s Cube newly installed on the University of Michigan’s North Campus is believed to be the world’s largest hand-solvable, stationary version of the famous puzzle.

The 1,500-pound, mostly aluminum apparatus was unveiled April 13 on the southwest corner of the second floor of the G.G. Brown Building. Two teams of mechanical engineering undergraduate students imagined, designed,and built the cube over the course of three years.

“Now North Campus has an iconic cube of our own,” says mechanical engineering student and cube co-developer Ryan Kuhn, referring to the spinning Tony Rosenthal sculpture on U-M’s central campus.

The colorful, new cube is meant to be touched and solved. The students worked hard to figure out a movement mechanism that would enable that. They realized they couldn’t simply scale up the approach a handheld cube relies on because the friction would be too great. So to keep friction minimal, they devised a setup that utilizes rollers and transfer bearings.

“This is a truly amazing and unique kinematic mechanism that functions as a Rubik’s cube,” says Noel Perkins, the Donald T. Greenwood Collegiate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and adviser to the students.

“There is no other human-manipulable cube like this, to the best of our knowledge. That says, it is not technically the largest cube. We’re aware of a larger cube that requires the user to literally roll it on the ground to solve and rotate the faces. None of that is required by our stationary design. So to be very precise, it is the world’s largest stationary, human manipulable Rubik’s cube.”

The construction: “A natural tendency toward chaos”

The first group of students came up with the idea for the cube on Pi Day, 2014. Martin Harris, who can solve one in 43 seconds, and Samuelina Wright, who can deconstruct one and reassemble it in a solved state, were hanging out in the College of Engineering honors office. Harris was fiddling with his cube when Wright had a vision: What if they made a massive version as a nod to the central campus sculpture?

The two got approval to carry the idea forward as a capstone senior design project.

The first team of four students — Kelsey Hockstad, Dan Hiemstra, Harris and Wright — worked on it for two years and graduated in 2016. The cube still needed fine tuning, as well as a stand. They convinced another cohort — Jason Hoving, Ryan Kuhn and Doug Nordman — to continue the project. The original team stayed involved to guide them.

Harris, who currently works as an as an engineer for Herman Miller in Holland, Mich., has been intrigued with Rubik’s cubes since childhood.

“The Rubik’s cube has been a consistent source of relaxation and mystery for me over the years, which is what I love most about it,” he says. “Since high school, I have thought of it as a physical representation of entropy. By inputting enough work, it’s possible to make the cube more organized, but its natural tendency is toward chaos.”

The installation: “A fusion of both art and engineering”

Since it was invented in 1974, the Rubik’s cube has become the world’s best-selling puzzle game — one that introduced and promoted mathematical thinking to generations. Solving it involves recognizing patterns and developing and implementing algorithms.

The large version on North Campus requires more than that: fatigue, ergonomics and even harmonics become part of the design picture, Harris says. So does collaboration.

“The point of making a Rubik’s Cube so large was primarily to introduce teamwork to the puzzle-solving process,” Harris says. “Real-world problems can rarely be solved without the cooperation of several different people. It’s a simple idea, but one that is crucial to science, technology, engineering, and math fields.”

The cube isn’t just about STEM fields.

“The project,” says Wright, who now works as an engineer at Boeing, “became a fusion of both art and engineering, much like North Campus, the cube’s home.”

Nicole Casal Moore

Nicole Casal Moore

NICOLE CASAL MOORE spent five years as a newspaper reporter covering natural resources, agriculture and environment, as well as state and county governments in California and Virginia. She worked as an online magazine editor and public affairs manager at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver for five years. She has been a science writer and public relations representative at Michigan News and the U-M College of Engineering since 2007. Follow her on Twitter: @UMengineering and @UMncmoore.