It seems like every day we read about the latest and greatest 3D printer that is hitting the “makersphere.” Kickstarter had 25 3D-printer-related projects listed at the date this blog was written, many that promise to put a 3D printer in your hands for under $500! With the advent of cheap and ubiquitous 3D printers, the tendency of makers out there is to jump to 3D printed models first. However, much time and plastic can be wasted in the earliest stages trying to learn the rules of a design as the designer cycles through print after print. I believe that Legos® can often times fill the gap between your initial ideas and those first higher-resolution models (eg. 3D-printed, or SLA models).
You remember Legos® right? Nearly every kid had a set (or 20 sets like me). When I was a kid, I was deep into space Legos®. Several Christmases and birthdays combined left me with quite the collection when I finally outgrew them. Luckily, when I moved out to go to college, my parents kept my old bins of space Legos® so that I might pass them onto my own kids. In fact, that very thing happened. My parents gave me back my bins of Legos® and they were passed onto my kids, who still play with them years later.
Fast forward to the Summer of 2011, when I decided to act upon an idea that I had for converting the iPhone into a mobile laboratory. I was just hearing about the renaissance in 3D printing and was about to invest in a printer or hire contract printing companies in order to realize some of my design ideas. Then it clicked. Those bins of Legos® surfaced in my mind and it was clear that the place to start fleshing out my first meter was with a Lego® scaffold. I began playing around with various basic designs and arrived at one that allowed me to ask several design questions at once. This became the launching point for a design effort that took several months to arrive at a great industrial design with the help from the highly creative folks at Speck Design of Palo Alto.
Legos® have several attributes that I believe make them a powerful early rapid prototyping platform:
- instantly recyclable
- cloneable designs
- mechanical features (swivels, hinges, wheels, pulleys, levers, etc.)
- more expensive kits offer essentially robotic functionality (Lego® Mindstorms)
If you cant find exactly the piece you need, it is not terribly expensive to cut existing pieces or glue additional functionality to existing pieces to augment their native capabilities. One major downside is that Legos® have a rather low resolution for design features. However, if you need finer detail, consider building a scaled model with Legos®.
I was too quick to deem myself clever in making use of Legos® in design as many others had already beaten me to the punch. The very large and well known design firm IDEO has mentioned their use of Legos in their design process in several places. Dr Craig Lawrence, an IDEO engineer, said in an Ask Magazine feature on IDEO:
“One of my favorite tools for rapid prototyping is Lego®. These ubiquitous children’s toys are a great way to prototype fairly complex mechanisms. During the development of a medical instrument, an IDEO team used Legos to prototype several concepts for a mechanism to convert continuous rotary motion into reciprocating linear motion. These prototypes clearly could not be used for surgery, but they are great for allowing an engineer to visualize a concept and work through some of the complex details rapidly.”
There is an interesting how-to article on making a Lego case for the Raspberry Pi ARM computer from a young girl named Biz on the Raspberry Pi web site. I also found an article on some Cal Tech students who used a Lego® core in order to build a smartphone-enabled device to monitor mammalian cells in culture (link). In an odd twist of fate, I found a video of a Lego® Mindstorm 3D printer:
In actuality, this machine is an automated Lego® model assembler, but I am sure the actual Lego® 3D printer is not too far off.
I may not have been the first person to realize that those toy blocks I grew up with can be useful for some grown-up uses. However the apparent convergent evolution that has led many makers to reach for Legos® as an early prototyping tool at least makes me feel as though I am in good company.