How Lego Is Constructing the Next Generation of Engineers- page 3 | Innovation | Smithsonian
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Lego’s new Mindstorms EV3 kit lets users build 17 different robots and program them directly through an “intelligent brick.” (Ian Allen)

How Lego Is Constructing the Next Generation of Engineers

With programmable robots and student competitions, Lego is making “tinkering with machines cool again”

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But something was rotting in the state of Denmark. By 2004 Lego had made some blockheaded financial decisions and was on the brink of bankruptcy or a takeover by Mattel, the world’s biggest toy retailer. Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, CEO and grandson of the founder, appointed former management consultant Jorgen Vig Knudstorp to replace him and rebuild Lego, brick by brick. Which Knudstorp did, cutting costs, laying off staff, halving development times, scrapping the software division and slashing product lines. Seemingly relegated to the Great Toy Attic in the Sky, Lego made a remarkable turnaround.

One line Knudstorp left untouched was Mindstorms, which began life 15 years ago in collaboration with the MIT Media Lab. “The original patent on our interlocking brick expired in 1975,” says Nipper. “The only way to continue differentiating ourselves from our competitors was through creativity.” And not necessarily Lego’s own creativity: The company has outsourced Mindstorms innovation to its hard-core fan base.

The relationship between Mindstorms and its enthusiasts had always been symbiotic. A couple of months after the debut of the robotics kit in 1998, Stanford University graduate student Kekoa Proudfoot reverse-engineered its proprietary microprocessors and posted the design secrets. Other hackers pounced on his findings, designed new software and operating systems, and shared performance tweaks with the rest of the Internet. While Lego’s management and legal team debated how to handle the breach, Nipper suggested that the company should encourage open-sourcing.

Suing the modders, he reasoned, might alienate Lego’s adult hobbyists, who accounted for nearly half of Mindstorms sales and were, essentially, willing to work for free. In the company’s new business paradigm, development should be fan-driven and fan-controlled, with very little oversight from Lego. So little that a “right to hack” was written into the Mindstorms software license. “We came to understand that limiting creativity is the opposite of our mission,” Nipper says. “Our goal is to foster inquiry and ingenuity.” The strategy paid off: Mindstorms became the best-selling product in Lego’s history.

In 2005, with the kit due for a design upgrade, Lego trolled through online forums and websites for adult fanboys willing to be part of a Mindstorms User Panel, or MUP. The four finalists—all sworn to secrecy—and Lego’s engineering brain trust spent 11 months swapping e-mails about everything from firmware to input ports. In return for their contributions, the MUPpets got paid in Legos. “It’s the best possible relationship,” says panelist Ralph Hempel, a professional engineer who specializes in embedded systems design. “Money would complicate the issue. There is no other brand in the world that I would consider doing similar work for at no charge. Getting advance copies of robotics kits is just icing on the cake for me.”

For the latest version of Mindstorms, Lego expanded its user panel to a dozen brickheads (the 12 Monkeys) and studied how kids interact with robotic toys. Camilla Bottke, the company’s senior marketing manager, says kids don’t view robots as objects as much as extensions of themselves, things with character and personalities. “I think that’s a great concept, right up until the child has to build the robot and program it,” offers Hempel. “That’s when the reality sinks in of how much thinking and tinkering goes into making a design work.”

***

“You say you want a revolution,” sang a skeptical John Lennon. “Well, you know, we all want to change the world.” The problem with the digital revolution, echoes Dean Kamen, is that the ability to play with technology is often confused with the ability to understand it.

The 62-year-old engineer and entrepreneur holds forth from a hexagon- shaped house of his own design on the outskirts of Manchester, New Hampshire. He wears what is virtually his uniform: an open-neck button-down denim shirt and denim pants.

Kamen dropped out of college to develop the world’s first wearable insulin pump. He went on to create the Segway; a self-balancing, six-wheeled robotic wheelchair capable of going up and down stairs; and an electrical generator that can run on cow dung and produce potable water on the side. Of all his inventions—and Kamen holds 441 foreign and domestic patents—the one he’s proudest of is FIRST, a largely mental sport based on competitive robotics.

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About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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