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It seems to me that sometime between 1998 and 2006 (between the Mindstorms RCX and NXT), LEGO switched from using studded technic bricks (like this:)

Technic Brick 1 x 12 with Holes

to studdless beams (like this):

Technic Beam 11

In my experience, people much more readily understand how to work with the older style of technic, and I was wondering if anyone has insights on why LEGO changed it.

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I distinctly remember the studless beams before 1998; I kind of always associated the studless look with Technic. –  KRyan Feb 20 '13 at 0:31

2 Answers 2

up vote 14 down vote accepted

The studless have SEVERAL advantages over the studded design especially when you want to include moving parts. Just the clearances between connections is important. Sariel sums it up in his book well. He says there are advantages to both systems (stud-full, for example, are more rigid) but the fact that the stud-less look more realistic and, of course, the clearances, make a huge difference. I think the change was NECESSARY to build more realistic models (realistic looking, arguably, but the new models are very mechanically clever in ways that would be impossible with the stud-full parts).

According to Jamie Berard, these advantages were a major part of the gradual migration, as was a flaw in the studded beam design-- the holes in studded technic bricks are placed slightly incorrectly according to the LEGO "System". That means for technic model designers, working with studded beams (and staying "In System") provides many difficult challenges.

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Sariel being quite the Technic expert, his book is certainly worth reading. Would be nice to have him here, too :-) –  Joubarc Feb 20 '13 at 8:42
    
I've been meaning to get ahold of that book. –  Clinton Blackmore Feb 20 '13 at 16:29
    
Yes! Sariel and the book are great. LOTS of things I've wondered about are answered in that book. It's inspiring to read about what's possible (and even impossible). That's why I link to the book whenever possible . . . every reader of this site interested in Technic/Mindstorms should get it. –  tooshel Feb 20 '13 at 20:17

I think the most important aspect is a matter of geometry.

With studded beams, you're constrained by the form factor of the regular LEGO brick, which isn't a cube but a 5:5:6 cuboid. This means that every time you need to change the orientation of things, you'll have to think about how you're going to do it, and use plates and whatnot between beams. It's perfectly possible, but don't be surprised if most of the beams in older Technic models are studs up.

With studless beams, none of that. Orientation of the beams doesn't matter much anymore since they'll fit nicely on a cubic grid. This allows for greater flexibility and, indeed, more realistic models. (Some people also like smooth surfaces better.)

Also, the studded beams had some design issues. The obvious one is the offset between the Technic holes and the studs, which isn't exactly a problem but can still be a nuisance at times. The less obvious one is that the Technic hole in beams is actually slightly too high, meaning it doesn't interact well with the rest of the system. See also this answer and the linked pdf inside for more information on illegal builds. These two design "flaws" didn't matter much when the beams were first created, but nowadays LEGO perceives this sort of incompatibility much more seriously. They still produce studded beams, but I wouldn't venture a guess on how long that will last.


One side effect of the transition is that most studless Technic constructions have odd dimensions, because the studless beams themselves have odd dimensions (presumably, because the number of holes on studded beams were also odd due to the offset). As a consequence, the whole Technic system is undergoing a complete overhaul.

At first, more odd axles have been introduced (most notably 7 and 9), then the universal join was shortened from 4 to 3 (the old one was last seen in 2008, so it's probably gone for good), and more recently the differential has also been remade (there's still one in the 2011 Unimog, but I don't know if they'll actually discontinue it considering it has a function the new one doesn't have.). I don't see any other part left that needs to be updated from even to odd, but considering how often they use a #2 connector just to connect axles, I wouldn't be surprised if they made a 3L version of the axle connector at some point

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I don't see any other part left that needs to be updated from even to odd: The studded frames (4x4, 4x6, 6x8) have so far given only the 5x7 studless frame (the 5x11 can be considered as a derivative of 5x7). Bigger frames would be nice to fit in PF motors... –  Philo Feb 20 '13 at 9:54
    
Good catch about the frames, I hadn't thought of these and there's indeed room for more of these. Maybe even a cubic one? (5x5x5?) –  Joubarc Feb 20 '13 at 10:22
    
Interesting. I'd often thought that the holes in the beams should be better centered. Is there any reason that the studless beams can't be made with an even number of holes? I must say that, while vertically reinforcing a part with the older system took some thought, building up or rotating 90 degrees was straightforward, without using any special joiners. –  Clinton Blackmore Feb 20 '13 at 16:29
    
Right, as long as you kept studs up, everything was easy, and you could argue some constructions were actually easier, but at the cost of one degree of freedom. I suppose Sariel's book (see Tooshel's answer) details the pros and cons much better. –  Joubarc Feb 20 '13 at 20:38

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