So this is Christmas?

While other children wait impatiently until the 25th to see what Santa brings, my children sampled Christmas early this year. All with the noble aim of helping you, our reader, decide which presents to bring your own children this holiday season.

To kick off the exercise, I hurried off to Hamleys one dark Friday afternoon. Battling my way through the throngs of people outside the store, I ascended to Floor One, the home of The Construction Kit. After all, any engineers interested in passing their love of design engineering onto their offspring this Christmas will surely be taking the same route later this month.

Inside the store, I was deluged by an array of construction kits, ranging in price from the affordable to the outrageous: £20 to £200. Eventually I settled on the £100 Robotix Robo-dog from Learning Curve International, the £100 Solar Deluxe 20 from K’Nex and the tried and trusty £80 Meccano Special Edition.

The three kits were dutifully transported home and the very next day, two fledgling reviewers, Madeleine,11, and Paul, 9, began their work evaluating these kits by building with them. They didn’t start until 5:00pm, after the other senior member of the management team decided that the older reviewer needed to tackle some homework first.

I decided that co-operation was key to constructing the designs on schedule, so I asked them to work in a team to facilitate the construction of the first model Robo-dog.

Like the other kits, Robo-dog comprises a kit of parts that can be assembled to form a number of different models: Robo-dog is just one of many models that can be built from the kit; you can also put together a Mars Surveyor, a Wreck Truck or a Probe Launcher.

In addition to the usual set of grey tubular plastic parts, Robo-dog comes with a battery pack, remote control unit and four DC motors that can be deployed to move the parts of the model. On Robo-dog, two are used to drive the front wheels, one is used to drive a jaw mechanism and the other is used to turn the head.

After some initial confusion as to how many parts there actually were (due to the fact that some of the parts were supplied already joined together) construction began in earnest. Early into the project, however, it became apparent that the construction was a one person job. When the junior member of the team asked what he could do while the older member pored over instructions and peculiarly shaped pipelike fittings, the older member replied that he should ‘just sit there and be bored’. Not exactly the teamworking I had envisaged.

Because parts are limited in these sets, there is often just enough kit to allow one model at a time to be built. Even though the hollow pipelike fittings would have made a ‘cool marble run’, there were not enough parts to achieve this lofty goal and build Robo-dog.

At 8:00 pm, Robo-dog was finished, and both reviewers were keen to put their creation to the test. Possibly due to cost constraints on the part of the manufacturer, however, only four wheels were supplied in the kit just enough for the front of Robo-dog. The back legs, devoid of any means of rotation, are simply dragged along behind. Occasionally, when they hit an object, they fall off.

And so it was. Onward and upwards to the K’Nex system. The system under examination was the Solar Deluxe 20. It comes in an appealing big yellow plastic case, ideal for storage after the big Christmas thrill has turned into the big storage problem.

In addition to an extraordinary number of small brightly coloured plastic parts, the kit also has a solar panel, which can be used to drive a motor in around 20 possible models, from a Robot to a Ferris Wheel to a Ship.

Prior to construction, the junior member of the team had already made his own plans for the solar panel, a device that definitely caught the imagination of both reviewers in its own right. ‘Maybe we could power the head of Robo-dog or my Game Boy with it?,’ he said. I mused that if K’Nex had supplied a few more of the devices, I could heat the entire home for the winter.

The Ferris Wheel was a teamworking affair. Since the Wheel comprised a pair of identical supporting towers, both reviewers could work on that part of the structure and did. Even if that hadn’t have been the case, there are enough of these small parts so that a rogue engineer can busy himself by doing his own thing while a colleague concen-trates on a more conservative design from the manual.

There was peace and quiet in the assembly area as the builders set to work. Both reviewers were impressed by the fact that the pieces and the instruction manual were very well colour coded. And the assembly of the system was relatively quick and easy. As the horn sounded the end of work for the day, the two towers were up. Next morning, the construction of the wheel section was completed at around 10:00am by the junior member of the team while the older member worked on assembling the gear set and shaft needed to drive the wheel from the motor.

Despite the fact that several intricate exploded sections of the motor gear drive mechanism were printed in the K’Nex assembly instructions, it still became a job for senior management to figure out what went where. The beta version of the wheel certainly looked visually appealing, but it became apparent that it would never work if the gears didn’t mesh. After 15 minutes, we had it licked. The solar panel was connected up to the DC motor and the impressively large and rigid wheel began to turn. Before they abandoned their design, the evaluators employed several Lego personnel from a Christmas long since gone to test drive the wheel.

Relentlessly, the senior management pressed the workforce to build the final model a small car from the Meccano Special Edition. Like the K’Nex system, the Meccano Special Edition set came in a large plastic case and the parts were very well laid out in compartments to aid with identification prior to assembly. Entering the modern age, this Meccano kit also came with its own DC motor.

Once again, it became apparent that designing with Meccano was more of a one person job, and, as before, it was down to Madeleine to make it work. Assembly of the car required the use of plates, flanges, screws, brackets and shafts, with the small spanner and key that came supplied with the kit the usual sort of thing that you’d expect with Meccano.

The drawings were extremely well laid out and, out of the three construction sets, it was the one system that needed no help from the old rocket scientist. Starting off at around 11:00am, with a break for lunch, the design was finished in just three hours in part, perhaps, because it wasn’t such a grandiose design we had built.

When the Meccano car rolled off the line, it was as solid a vehicle as you would expect from something made out of steel. ‘Of all the toys,’ one of our reviewers remarked, ‘the Meccano teaches you most about engineering because it is more realistic’.