LEGO has had a long and illustrious history and has brought joy to children, young and old for many decades. Their model kits are loved the world over and we'd be very surprised if you didn't have a few at home. But have you ever wondered how they design LEGO kits? Yes, so have we. Join us as we explore, briefly, the rise of LEGO and follow one of their model kit series from concept through to mass production.
We love LEGO here at Interesting Engineering so we'd like to take this opportunity to thank them for enriching our childhoods. All hail LEGO.
What does LEGO actually mean?
LEGO is actually an abbreviation of the two Danish words "leg godt" which means "play well". According to LEGO, it's their name and their ideal. Nice. This name was adopted in 1934. They later noticed that the term also means "I put together" in Latin, well the verb legō. Fate perhaps?
It might be worth briefly exploring their history. It's pretty interesting in itself.
The evolution of Lego
Ole Kirk Kristiansen was a master carpenter and joiner who founded a business in the village of Billund, Denmark in 1932. He initially started building stepladders, ironing boards, and stools. When he began having trouble sourcing enough wood to make these products, Kristiansen decided to change tactics and try and make wooden toys for children instead.
Kristiansen continued to grow the business and in 1946 decided to invest in a new technology, plastic injection molding. This was seen as little crazy at the time. Critics noted that children would never want plastic toys, instead, they preferred and loved wooden ones. Ignoring the critics, he decided to experiment with making blocks that were initially stackable rather than the inter-lockable ones we love today.
In 1949, LEGO produced around 200 different plastic and wooden toys. These included the Automatic Binding Bricks which were the direct forerunners to modern bricks. These were initially sold in Denmark exclusively. In the early 1950's LEGO officially called these "LEGO Mursten" or LEGO bricks and succeeded in acquiring a trademark for them. These were later patented in 1958. 1960 saw a devastating fire in their wooden toy warehouse and LEGO stopped building them altogether afterward. Ever since LEGO has continued to innovate and add new design LEGO kits and blocks all around the world.
You can view their entire history here.
Designing a kit
Let's follow one particular series of kits from conception through to marketing. The following is based on a series of videos as part of the marketing for the "Cars" concept and design LEGO kits.
LEGO kits begin life, as you'd expect, as a big pile of loose bricks, or elements as they call them. The designers get to plunder the "vaults" or stores where all currently available elements are stored and cataloged. These even have handy reference displays at the end of each aisle.
Once they've got a good stock of them to work with, the designers begin to experiment with them to get a rough model of the intended final product. They may get lucky and be able to assemble the model from the existing pieces. Otherwise, they'll need to have some specially made. Some sources seem to indicate that this should be the last resort in order to keep the production of the kit costs and therefore shelf price as low as possible. This could simply mean changing the color of an existing element to of course a completely new design.
Other considerations include trying to keep a balance within an existing theme and look (Star Wars, Pirates etc) as well as the number of blocks per kit and age group they are targeting.
Creating new blocks, sorry "elements"
New elements are first hand drawn and then translated into 3D on CAD programs. Here they play around with texture, color and finish. Once they are happy they are sent to "print" in their prototypes lab. In recent years this is done using a 3D printer. Once printed they are washed and dried they need to be painted and decorated if needed.
Decals are further designed and printed as stickers ready for applying to the new element. They experiment with colors and details until they get the closest fit to what they are trying to emulate. This trial and error process must be a lot of fun.
Once they are happy with the basic design, have created new elements and decals, the kit is ready for test production. Elements are printed with decorations "stamped on" rather than using stickers, though not always, in a fully automated manufacturing process at their plants.
Once the kit is finalized there is one missing piece in the final kit. As everyone knows each and every leg kit comes complete with its very own set of easy to follow instructions. Like other parts of the process, these are designed on computers. This process isn't always foolproof, however. The instructions are also tested to ensure they capture all the necessary steps involved in building the final model. Errors can occur, as you'd expect, and constant communication is made between team members to constantly amend and refine the instructions.
Generally, this is a very professional process, but you can't blame the designers for having a little play time with the models. After all, they need to be fun right, they are toys?
As with all toys, new design LEGO kits need to pass the highest of quality standards. Children. This process includes their views on how easy to follow the instructions are and if the final model is fit for purpose. Minor tweaks and refinements are made constantly until it's finally ready for mass production, packaging, and marketing. Marvelous.
So there you go, this is how they design LEGO kits. Well, one series in any case. Have you ever worked for LEGO? Do you know someone who has worked there? We'd be very interested in getting some more "intel" in the process.