How Lego Mindstorms Influences Construction, Programming, and 3-D Printing

“I must go. My people need me.”

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Matthew Yglesias is on vacation.

Lego is thriving over its competitors, and 3D printing may have just crossed a critical threshold. Here’s how they’re related.

When I was in middle school, a friend and I became obsessed with BattleBots, which aired on Comedy Central from 2000-2002 and existed only to show footage of a demolition derby of remote-controlled robots.

Of course, we wanted destructive robots as well. Michael, my friend, chose to build his out of Lego Mindstorms, which were kits that included programmable computers. He was more interested than I was in the finesse of robotics; on one occasion he built a torpedo-launching turret. I was more of an Army of Darkness, helicopter-car kind of kid, so I went with K’Nex, which offered no programmability. My robots, in hindsight, were pretty stupid—at least until I stuck 9-volts in the battery packs.

These memories came flooding back after reports surfaced of a new line of computerized Lego toys that are expanding on that ancestry. They’re more expensive, less child-focused, and, according to one former Lego employee speaking to Businessweek, angrier-looking and more conflict-based. Businessweek also notes that Lego has outpaced its competitors, embraced digital media (including video games and an impending movie with Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman), and integrated smartphone programmability.

There is another reason why Lego is succeeding. It’s because Lego helped build the economy we’re all walking into—for the better.

The specific industry that Lego’s Mindstorms products have most influenced, by my count, isn’t construction or even programming generally. The industry Mindstorms have most influenced is 3D printing. It seems to be a mechanical mecca for the kids who were passionate about their programmable Legos.

To many, 3D printing incorporates a wide swath of weird and extreme topics, from printed guns to piracy. But it’s more accurately associated with everything from superhero movies to medicine, if for no other reason than that’s where the industry’s future lies. This month, a father printed a prosthetic hand for his son instead of paying tens of thousands for one from a factory. He borrowed the printer from his son’s school. And he wasn’t the first. In other words, this industry is already making a ton of money and improving lives, right under our noses.

3D printing’s development depends on how well it’s able to reach the mainstream. That’s why it was big news this week when a 28-year-old from Canada created a printer for under $100. (Here’s a video showing how his process works.) To foster even more techno-utopian charm, CBC is reporting that he’s collected “more than $700,000 in crowdsourced funding.”

The connection between these Lego kids and this new industry that promises to change manufacturing as we know it is anecdotal—for now. But it’s analogous to the era of industry that produced a generation of programmers who were baptized by the Commodore 64. Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, noted that as these industries become more refined—as the Commodore 64 turns into an iMac—there are barriers of complexity added as well, which serve to block out the uninitiated.

Michael, for his part, ended up making design tools for architects and built from scratch a three-axis mill, which is like a printer except it cuts material into a shape instead of layering it. He says, “Mindstorms convinced me it wasn’t impossible to make whatever I wanted.”

Lego’s products are the antithesis of those barriers. And so long as Mindstorms graduates shape the 3D printing industry, I expect Lego will be warmly rewarded. By leading innovatively, Lego created effects that have reached well beyond its revenue, and reinforced its position as one of the smartest things parents can buy for their children. Either for play, or for a new hand.

You can build a 3D printer with Legos using these instructions.