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I've often wondered how it is that LEGO goes about creating new sets. I can easily imagine a person sitting in a room all day with unlimited pieces of every shape but with some of the complicated sets we see these days there must be some sort of computer aid.

Do the designers model new sets on a computer which then figures out pieces and instructions or do they do build and tweak until things seem just right?

Can anyone provide insight into the process that LEGO takes on creating new sets?

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This Gizmodo post covers the manufacturing process. (unrelated, but cool) –  fredley Oct 25 '11 at 21:46
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Have you heard of LDD? There are also other alternatives, such as LDraw. Also, check out LEGO Cuusoo - they are making us do the work for them! Clever. –  muntoo Oct 26 '11 at 2:51
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It is actually super complex. They first start by tinkering, when they have an idea. Then they start building. When they have the object built, they rebuild it step by step, gluing each step to a board. Then a device scans the boards for changes, makes the instructions, and calculates part count. Or at least that is how they used do it.

How do I know this? I read it in a book by 2 former Lego designers. Called Forbidden Lego, you can look it up on Amazon and preview the pages where it has the info.

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I have some doubts about the gluing and scanning part, to be honest - as I understand, designers will indeed first make their model with actual bricks, going through several iterations depending on unknown factors (cost, target audience, marketing, whatever); but I believe they'll make a digital version of it (with what I suppose is some in-house software similar to an LDraw editor) when they hand it over for the next steps. That said, since Ulrik Pilegaard stopped working for LEGO in 2004, it's possible the method has changed and they did in fact work the way you say back then. –  Joubarc Jan 31 at 10:54
    
@joubarc Thank you for your comment, I do realize that they most likely do it a different way. Thats why I had included 'at least that is how they used to do it'. However, that being said, I will edit the post and include another line explaining how this way is most likely not in use anymore. –  JVarhol Jan 31 at 11:00
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There are a series of youtube videos about LEGO Cars set design process. They are kinda simplified and targeted at kids, but still have some good insights in process. First video can be found here.

Playlist of all 6 videos somebody have assembled.

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As far as I know, designers work mostly with bricks only.

They do have a desk and a quasi-unlimited supply of parts (which I think is actually not too exactly close to their desks), and usually use their imagination the same way a fan does.

Something which fans don't do however, and which designers must do, is keep track of the price of the model they're building so that it's in line with the expected price point (these are determined by marketing when a theme is started).

This is much more complicated than it sounds, because element prices aren't always logical (for example, a Technic axle 5 is cheaper than a 4), and the number of different elements counts too (that's why sometimes they use other parts than what would be logical, such as a 1×2 brick with groove when the groove has no purpose whatsoever at that place, but since the brick is already included elsewhere and a regular 1×2 isn't, it's cheaper to use).

In short, all production costs are taken into account, including packaging and so on. Of course, for parts which aren't produced yet, the prices is much higher, but how higher depend on a lot of factors (whether the part exists but not in that color, whether the parts fit well in the system, and so on). Design teams may also want to bargain with other teams to have them support the cost development of a new part. Licensed themes may have a different cost structure because the licensees are sometimes willing to pay for a new part if it makes the model more realistic (most good hairdos come from licenses nowadays).

Once the designer has a model ready (it'll undergo quite a few tweaks along the way, of course), they'll hand it to another team which will be responsible for making sure the model can be built by kids, and possibly tweak it some more to make the instructions clearer (ever noticed why some hidden bricks have sometimes unexpected colors?). These guys do use computers, and they'll make the instructions as well; but in the meantime the designers are busy on their next model.

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What is your source for the answer? First hand experience? –  Mike Nov 2 '11 at 15:22
    
Not first hand per se as I'm not a designer myself, but this information is gathered from conversations with some designers, and with people who attended fan workshops in Billund. The only thing I can't really remember having been told explicitely is the bargaining between teams; but it's true that the cost of a new element has to be supported once only. Again, elements which fit better within the system will be more readily accepted for production anyway. –  Joubarc Nov 2 '11 at 15:40
    
You may also want to read designer Mark Stafford's interview which provides a lot of insight on this as well - including the reason why the Technic axle 4 is more expensive. –  Joubarc Jan 9 at 8:15
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When Jamie Berard came to Brick Fiesta in Houston in 2012, he mentioned the bargaining between teams. This was demonstrated in part by one of the prototypes had the conical hat for the wheel covers for the latest incarnation of the Sopwith Camel (10226). –  gev Jan 10 at 20:49
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I once had an acquaintance who worked at Lego as a product designer (I don't remember his exact title). His job was, simply put, to come up with new sets. There are some general constraints – balancing the different Lego worlds/themes (contemporary, pirate-age, Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.), hitting certain price points/box sizes (limiting the number of bricks in a set), coming up with sets that work well together, etc.

Lego also tries to design the individual pieces to be used in many settings. The same terrain/foundation was used with differnent paint for the anti-pirate fortress (which my sister had) and the dragon knights castle (which I had). In the old days it was fairly rare for Lego to make new brick types – it has become less so, as their manufacturing processes have become more nimble and less expensive.

As for the software used in designing Lego-sets, I know little about it. They do use software/brick simulation, but also work with the physical bricks, especially the old hands :)

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Why is it less expensive? Lego almost went bankrupt from inventing too many new parts in 2005. –  Erik Olson Oct 27 '11 at 0:07
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I have a hard time believing any manufacturing process, even if kept primarily in European countries as LEGO has done, has not become cheaper and more flexible between 1940 and 2011. –  user23 Oct 27 '11 at 0:27
    
There's a lot of efficiencies from new technologies – more precise, computer powered tools, less labour costs from using robotics for certain tasks – and I don’t think it was the creating of new parts themselves that brought them close to ruin, more the fact that they couldn’t sell them and burned a mountain of cash marketing failed products. Remember Galidor, Clikits? –  mikl Nov 1 '11 at 19:18
    
3D printing for prototypes probably helps reduce costs too, as real molds only need to be created for final version of parts. –  Joubarc Feb 9 '12 at 15:02
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I thoroughly enjoyed National Geographic's documentary - Megafactories - LEGO:

It's one of the most popular construction toys in the world. In the age of unprecedented competition for their attention - from videogames to TVs to countless activities - children still spend over 5 billion hours a year playing with LEGO bricks. But building simple modular toys with interlocking bricks is a lot more complex than it seems. Their most popular set - the police station - is completely redesigned every few years to keep up with the times. From R&D and engineering to robotic assembly lines and the most fickle test market on the planet, Mega Factories: LEGO takes you behind the scenes as a real life police station turns into a playground for the imagination.

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Mega factories - gotta love the irony... –  Joubarc Feb 9 '12 at 15:04
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"This video has been removed by the user. Sorry about that." –  mbx Apr 8 '12 at 11:51
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