Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Is LEGO inadvertently pushing Technic towards CAD?

Even though I haven't considered the Technic part spectrum poor at any time since the 80's, a compliment I must give LEGO is their subtle yet highly important ability to introduce new parts sensibly. It is still very much an ongoing process, and when I see a new part announcement somewhere, I frequently find myself thinking "Ha! That's exactly what was missing". Various new flavors of pins, axles, connectors, etc. may not seem like a big deal to an outsider, but they usually allow new approaches and techniques, and indirectly, new functionalities.

And, season by season, by today we've reached the point where possibilities are virtually endless. An example that comes to mind right away are gearboxes. Compare what was possible in the 8865 Test Car to the modern 7+R models packing triple the functionality in a similar volume, thanks to only a few specialized, but cleverly thought-out parts. Nowadays one can take an engineering catalog of typical linkages and mechanisms, and the question is no longer whether it can be recreated with Technic, but rather which of the possible routes to take.

From one standpoint, that is a great situation to be in, and I am not going to deny it―after all, that is one of the main goals of the entire Technic theme. But this enormous flexibility has, at least to my mind, begun forming a rather different type of a problem. Namely, that of a spiraling complexity.

In the recent years, whenever building a flagship Technic set or any kind of a very sophisticated mechanism (which there is no lack of in the specialized community web), I had an increasing feeling that the mechanical complexity possible now is at a level which is no longer feasible to design directly, using hands, parts, trial and failure. Some state-of-the-art Technic gearboxes and linkages today are so clever and optimized into such an incredibly tiny volume, that I cannot imagine ever designing them at my LEGO workstation only.

Yes, I am fully aware that sketching and planning constructions elsewhere has been a must for top-notch Technic models for a long time already. I've even written so myself on this very site. But what I feel now is that the possibilities have been brought up to a level where everything but the final construction needs to be done elsewhere, if one intends to do a perfect job. And that "elsewhere" is no longer a paper, but one of the available LEGO CAD programs, which have become really good.

As if the top-class Technic building is undergoing the same transition as industrial mechanical engineering did some decades ago. The most advanced mechanisms designed today are so complex that building them at a workbench and testing them would be far too expensive, and take insane amounts of time. Therefore, right up to the first prototype, everything gets designed and simulated on a computer. It saves time, manpower, resources and money, and has revolutionized mechanical engineering.

My point is that something similar is now happening for our beloved Technic. With its extremely flexible and versatile parts, it is no longer feasible to find the best design by building it with real parts, iteration after iteration, but by turning on one's computer and trying them in a CAD. This can also be seen as some sort of "revolution", but the question here is—is it a desired one?

Possibly, but it means that the sophisticated Technic building will no longer follow the classic "open your box of parts and unleash your ideas", but rather become a hybrid of CAD and building, with the latter starting only at the mature prototype stage. I don't personally mind it, but I also don't necessarily like it. One can surely construct things of jaw-dropping complexity, but isn't one of the points of LEGO to keep us away from the screens, rather than keeping us bound to them?

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