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.

  • 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

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.

  • 4
    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. 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

  • 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. 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
  • 2
    3M axle connector as predicted : brickset.com/parts/design-26287
    – Joubarc
    Jul 19 '16 at 14:15

I have to chime in here that I've thought about this for a long time. I believe the all out move to studless is primarily driven by patenting, and only secondarily by improved realness. Lego had used the studded design for decades prior to the switch; they began full transition in close proximity to the original patents expiring and beginning to lose patent lawsuits. What is the only solution to that?

Branding (read: licensed themes) and new ideas (read: new patents). When it comes down to it, that toy company we all love(d) is actually a very well-managed business with strong survival technics (pun intended:)

  • This is a very good point, do some research before downvoting. Losing control of the iconic ''brick with studs" piece (through patent expiration and lost trademark cases) is a very real problem for Lego, and I'm sure it has an impact on their decisions for the future.
    – Matjan
    May 13 '16 at 0:17
  • 1
    I see a lot more cheap clones using studless beams than studded ones. I'm guessing ease of manufacture accounts for that, rather than expiring patents.
    – Móż
    Jul 18 '16 at 4:17

Manufacturing the studded beams is significantly more complex and hence more expensive. They have more plastic in them (they weigh more) which also pushes up the cost. But the mould complexity is the real killer. If you look carefully there's a void over the top of the holes in the beam. That means moulds with moving parts, and the more parts the more it costs.

The design is also not ideal from a rigidity or symmetry point of view. There's a solid bar of plastic along the top under the studs, but just two thin sidewalls at the bottom. That means the centre of flexion along the beam is much closer to the top than the bottom, and I suspect that getting the moulding temperature and pressure right to get straight beams is harder than for symmetrical parts.

Note that some of this also applies to standard 1x16 bricks, except that the mould is much simpler.

  • Actually, the technic brick with studs is way more rigid than the modern one.
    – Haukinger
    Jan 28 at 11:02
  • @Haukinger weight for weight or piece for piece? I suspect you mean the latter and that's an unfair comparison. Also, I was talking about manufacturing them rather than using them.
    – Móż
    Jan 29 at 8:49
  • 1
    I completely agree with you that they did it for cost only, for the last 30 years they only ever made stuff cheaper (to manufacture, not to buy, of course).
    – Haukinger
    Jan 29 at 11:35

Studless beams allow for bricks with corners:

enter image description here

With studs Lego could produce similar bricks however it seems less obvious how they would look like.

The benefits of having these curved bricks are just better designed models. Set 8880 (the big Technic car from 1994) is an example how Lego had to go trough great lengths to get corners and angles in their design. With studless bricks you can have the angles and corners already. I think it is an improvement.

I suspect Lego was because of these studless bricks with corners able to phase out the awkward Technic Connector Toggle Joint Toothed brick which turned out to have too many issues after all.

enter image description here

  • 1
    Welcome to Bricks.SE. Beam pictured above doesn't form 135 degree angle - use two of them and you won't get nice 90 degree assembly.
    – Alex
    Jan 22 at 20:50

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