Review by C.J. Bunce

For all the complex technology inside the Chain-Program Robot, a fully-functional, all-in-one model robotics kit, Tamiya, Japan’s premiere modelmaker, has made a surprisingly straight-forward, project to build in a day or less for anyone looking for a great hobby project right now.  A motorized robot that resembles Number Five from the 1980s comedy classic starring Ally Sheedy and Steve Guttenberg, Short Circuit (“Number Five is alive!”), that is actually programmable, in a kit that includes everything you need to build and operate it, except a hobby knife, screwdriver, and double-A battery?  Thanks to Plaza Japan, the world’s best online store for authentic Japanese action figures, model kits, toys and puzzles, we gave the Chain-Program Robot a try, and it is every bit as good–and fun–as it sounds.  Take a look at a detailed rundown of my experience with the build process, and a video of the robot in action, below.

First off, I am a great fan of Tamiya’s paints.  I’ve used them for years and find the company’s line of weathering powder paints an invaluable component for and kind of hobby kits, and used them to add distressing and aging to my Star Wars cosplay armor projects.  But I’d never tried Tamiya’s model kits.  I have built dozens of plastic airplane and car kits over the years.  The Chain-Program Robot features a more modern, sturdier plastic than I’ve encountered with previous model kits–I always tend to need to repair some cracked part at the end that didn’t snap out right.  As I’ve gotten older and the fingers less nimble and eyesight worse, I was a bit concerned at first with all the small screws, wiring, and connectors.  But I had no problems with this sturdy plastic–no breaks–and actually no hitches with the kit at all, thanks to clear instructions, and easily divided and defined parts, like distinct parts bags to differentiate similar screws, and numbered plastic parts easily removed from the seven clear and bright-colored sprue moldings (the kit is available in either orange and white or blue and yellow).

Sturdy, brightly-colored parts, and clear instructions in English and Japanese.

The Chain-Program Robot is part of Tamiya’s Educational Construction Series.  The box indicates modeling skills are helpful if under ten years of age, and I’d agree it seems like a kit for 10 years and up, although any teenager (or 40-something…) will have fun assembling a robot essentially from scratch.  If you’re familiar with LEGO’s Expert Builder Series or the classic Erector Sets, figure this as the next step up.  It’s a model and an electronic toy, sturdy and nicely sized at 18.5 cm x 13.8 cm x 16.2 cm when complete.  The “chain program” in the title reflects the rudimentary artificial intelligence of sorts that you “program” via three distinct plastic chain piece types that indicate forward, left, or right movement (64 interchangeable links are provided in the kit for unlimited programming of movement routes).

Completed link “reader” components.

The first step is building the chain reader, the components that actually interpret the programmable links.  I was surprised by the clever design–this looks like an advanced toy you’d buy in a store, only pre-assembled.  Ever want to know how it feels to be a toymaker?  You’ll want to try this.

Lots of screws and fittings make for a solid completed toy.

That’s followed by the housing frame and gear box, which houses two motors that operate the two large wheels.  The clear plastic housing allows you to watch the gears interconnect and move.  The kit includes metal axels, rods, spacers, screws, washers, nuts, and eyelets, as well as wiring for an on-off switch, powered by a battery housing you also build.  A tube of grease (about the consistency of petroleum jelly) is included to reduce friction of moving parts.

Gear box detail.

This is followed by the building and attachment of a third wheel, attached at the robot’s reverse side, which serves as its steering mechanism, and these are all linked to a freely moving head and arms, which provide some some cute animation to the robot as it moves and turns.  You can then plan, create, and experiment with the chain links to navigate your own obstacle courses.

Here it is in action:

Tamiya included housing for separately sold components such as universal plates for gearboxes, etc., microcomputers, and circuit boards, attachable to the side frame support.  So the Chain-Program Robot can serve as a starting point for remote or wireless-controlled experiments with the robot for anyone wanting to expand on it.

A pro could assemble the model in a few hours, or take your time, have fun, and finish in probably no more than 4-5 hours.

Tamiya’s Chain-Program Robot was a complete blast to build, and even more fun to watch and program when it all worked flawlessly once completed.  Pick up your own kit to build while sheltering at home this summer, also perfect for teaching kids about electrical engineering and design basics.  It’s available in orange and white here at Plaza Japan and in blue and yellow here.  Thanks to Plaza Japan for sharing this great project.