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    The Fall of Lego... 3D Printing?


    Anybody who buys LEGO sets and bricks daydreams about a future in which one does not need to go to the store to obtain them. There will be no need to waste a half an hour or more in time and several dollars in gas from the drive going to their destination, not to mention wear and tear on the vehicle. Not only that, but the time wasted being in the store and having to wait in long lines will be saved. In addition, there is a possibility that after all the wasted time, gas and effort, the retailer you are seeking this product from will not have what you seek. What's a consumer to do? Well, the first idea that comes to mind is Amazon.com. This online giant retailer will enable you to order tens of thousands of products from the comfort of your home and have it delivered to your doorstep in one day. But what's a person to do if the product is not available once again or is too expensive to ship or too fragile? I have a better solution...let's take a look.

    Yes, now with the advent of the internet that Al Gore created for us… people can forego those antiquated procedures of trekking to a store and actually conversing with people. The ultimate solution comes straight out of Gene Roddenberry's imagination, into your screen via Star Trek, and what looks to be soon, straight into your home! I am speaking of the Star Trek Replicator...

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    The Star Trek Replicator has already become a reality through 3-D Printers. According to the website Wikipedia, a 3-D Printer/Printing is :

    ...a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. 3D printing is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes. 3-D printing is considered distinct from traditional machining techniques which mostly rely on the removal of material by methods such as cutting or drilling (subtractive processes).

    3-D printing is usually performed by a materials printer using digital technology. Since the start of the twenty-first century there has been a large growth in the sales of these machines, and their price has dropped substantially.[2]

    The technology is used in jewelry, footwear, industrial design, architecture, engineering and construction (AEC), automotive, aerospace, dental and medical industries, education, geographic information systems, civil engineering, and many other fields.

    The most well known 3-D Printer that has attracted mainstream media attention over the years is the MakerBot, founded roughly four years ago in 2009 by Adam Mayer, Zach Smith and Bre Pettis.

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    While mostly used by hobbyists, a few are trying to make money through producing small goods, like bottle cap openers and other small knickknacks. It is looked at as the beginning of what is to come. The MakerBot produces products in acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), polylactic acid (PLA), and polyvinyl alcohol (PVA). ABS plastic is of paramount importance for our discussion because that is what LEGO bricks are made of.

    The newest incarnation from MakerBot goes by the name of The Replicator 2X, the same name used in Star Trek and goes for around $2,800.00. The Replicator 2X can produce objects in two colors and has taken over the 3-D Printing market since competitor 3-D printers, like the Thing-o-Matic, have been been discontinued. An even newer version, the CubeX, can print in three colors and goes for around $4,000.00. Even for those that lack the skill to be able to create their own products, MakerBot has a vast community made up of fellow hobbyists who create and share their designs for others to produce.

    Other 3-D Printers exist and have even been shown on such popular shows such as This Old House. The $70,000 ZPrinter 650, by the Z Corporation, is one such example. To see what the future holds, watch this YouTube video segment from the show...

    Like most revolutionary gadgets, their prices may be high to start and their processes slow, but in the next 10 to 20 years these gadgets should be able to produce detailed goods right in your home, at an affordable price. So what does this mean to LEGO investors and collectors? To the LEGO investor, it could mean that your retired sets will be valued at the level of vinyl records in today's age of digital music. There will still be a value in rare and vintage LEGO sets, but a decrease in your investment is a possibility. Why? Because LEGO fans will be able to easily reproduce an iconic set like the 10179 Millennium Falcon in their own parts, so why buy an old and expensive version...the box? Why buy a new LEGO set if you can reproduce them in your basement? This can lead to a possible demise of The LEGO Group itself.

    Unfortunately for LEGO investors, your plastic brick empire will be the first to fall from the earliest mainstream 3-D Printing boom, compared to normal action figures which will fall in later upgrades, due to their simplistic shape and design. The days of making money off of “parting” brick pieces will be history due to the ease of printing whatever you need on a whim, and great for parents who deem LEGO an expensive toy for little Johnny or Jane! Free sourced data files by like minded tech savvies who deem the product too expensive will do to LEGO what many did to the music industry by sharing songs through file-sharing sites such as Napster founded by Sean Parker, Shawn Fanning, and John Fanning.

    Who will need LEGO to produce bricks when you will be able to produce them cheaply yourself? Bigger sets. More creative sets. Cheaper sets. New colors. How about special bricks that MOCers have wanted LEGO to make for years, but have not had their wish granted? They can make their own “custom” LEGO bricks now. Not only that, the aftermarket MOC instruction business will explode with large and creative models that were only obtainable to a lucky few LEGO Master Builders years earlier. Some of the large CUUSOO models that were not approved because they were too big and pricey will be built by LEGO fans at reasonable prices.

    Companies(...and not just toy companies like LEGO) will try to fight off 3-D Printers by slashing down their prices on their products to no avail. Companies will threaten lawsuits about patent infringement, but how can you stop people producing bricks in basements? Want to build a set from 2013? Want to build an exclusive or a new set from 2023 to 2033? No problem, just go on to one of the many Lego fan sites which will have instruction manuals for the vast majority of sets. The new cost of a LEGO brick will be the cost of the raw materials and some electricity to run the machine. No shipping, no gas, and the ability to have instant gratification! Century old companies will cling to lawsuits for survival and have sites taken down that have their patents. But the internet is too vast to stop the inevitability of these businesses going the way of the dinosaur. Beam me up, Scotty!

    References:
    1. "3D Printer Technology — Animation of layering". Create It Real. Retrieved 2012-01-31.
    2. Sherman, Lilli Manolis. "3D Printers Lead Growth of Rapid Prototyping (Plastics Technology, August 2004)". Retrieved 2012-01-31.

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    Yes, the material would be the key. If the printer/replicator only uses one type of plastic, that does not make it very useful at this time. Not to mention, the model it replicates would have to be capable of dis-assembly to be a true model. Building is part of the experience and you won't get that with these things.

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    Interesting story, but I don't see why this technology would ever be an issue or problem for Lego. Why would someone spend all the time and expense to create their own fake Lego bricks? If Bricklink didn't exist, maybe -- but it does, and it's too easy and cheap to just buy bricks in bulk and build your own "rare" sets. If anything, I can see it being used for truly rare parts like those seen on vintage cars or something like that, that is not readily available.

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    I see using this for rare small parts like tools you mite not be able to get or just small things. Printing a ton of 2x4 takes for ever and not cost effective.

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    I plan on giving my 'final thoughts' on this column later. I have enjoyed reading the feedback so far. However I would like to address a little of what I was going to address then, now, since it relates to the above. Not really JJ. In the future, 10 to 20 years or more these printers (if they reach the quality of standard and price point) should be able to produce items at much faster speeds. Not to mention that oil increase from current developing countries will increase shipping rates exponentially to double to triple if not more what the current price will is without inflation factoring into the equation

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    Nice article. Lego spends millions on molds that they inject to create parts. You wouldn't be able to build those kind of molds at home, with such small tolerances, and these type of printers build parts layer by layer. It would be like toddler Mega Blocks at best. Another angle to 3-D printing is that law enforcement officials are seriously worried about people printing guns!

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    It think the technology will get there to have the quality and right material. It is just a mater of time. I think LEGO will use this technology for themselves in the future. Making specialty parts for them will be more cost effective than producing a mold and injecting.

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    We maybe able to do it but it wont sell like lego it wont be worth your time to have this if your just trying to sell I think lego would file and sue you for remanufacturing copyrighted parts.

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    There are some good thoughts and opinons expressed in the article. No doubt 3-D printing will improve and refine and become much better than the crude thing it is now. 3-D printing will parallel what has occured with 'normal' printing in terms of improvements and quality. In that same vein, 3-D printing may not be something that LEGO needs to worry too much about relating to its product. Just a few (of many) points: 1 - Speed. The moulding process & machines that create LEGO elements are insane fast - faster than the eye can follow. Just as current color printers available for home and business cannot keep up with current lithography used for books, magazines and mass media, it is doubtful that 3-D printers will ever match the speeds of other maufacturing processes. LEGO will most likely be able to win the mass production battle against 3-D printers. 2 - Quality. Tolerances employed to make LEGO work are extrememly high. They are well beyond anything that a 3-D printer can produce. Even the future I doubt that affordable 3-D printers can match the tolerances required to make LEGO work well. Who here has ever used a high-end printer only to suffer from paper jams, misalignement, misprinting and uncalibrated prints? These are common and extremely difficult to control consistently. 3 - Cost. Anyone who has purchased printer ink/toner ever will know what this means. I do not see 3-D printers being any different. Most likely the materials used by 3-D printers will be even more expensive than 'normal' printer ink. The feasibilty of someone using a 3-D printer to undercut LEGO may be in for a rude awakening when they make that first purchase of 3-D 'ink', no matter how large the order (to get a bulk discount like large print houses do today). There are many more examples, but the main point is that it is doubtful that anyone will be able to successfully employ 3-D printing on a large scale to challenge LEGO. I could be wrong. 3-D printing will be viable for small home and hobbiest that want those special/rare/unavailable elements & colors and, no doubt, there will be people who will chose to make their own LEGO-like parts over purchasing the real deal. There will be plenty of people that will try to make a buck using 3-D technology, but it is doubtful that it will challenge LEGO. I could be wrong. But think about other industies that have 'home' solutions available. Very few of those ever replaced the industry or product that is mass-producess. At least not yet, and most of them have had longer than 10,20,30 or even 50 yrs to try. Just some food for thought for consideration.

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    Regarding those thoughts about the 'original' sets like the 10179 UCS MF, the Toy Fair/Comic-Con Exclusives, etc and their value: Go take a spin through eBay to see what the going prices are for an original UCS MF (regardless of new/used) versus one that is described as 'hand-built' (e.g. the seller admits to pulling together loose LEGO without purchasing the set). Or search for the Chrome C-3PO and compare prices on that to the 'custom Chrome C-3PO's. You will discover very quickly that there is a large price difference. People will still pay more (premuim) for the original than for a custom or counter-fit item. This will always be the case with those people who are paying $2-3k for the the UCS MF and $750 for the exclusive minifigs. Welcome to the world of collectors, completists, purists and other eccentrics that have more money than good common sense. ;-) As for the rest of the masses, unless 3-D printing is able to mimic near-perfectly LEGO elements, people WILL notice a difference. Just like how they can tell the difference between all the other LEGO-like competitor products. Many people may not care. Those who look for LEGO (and do care) will diffinately notice and still be willing to pay more for the original. I believe that the latter group is the larger group of people. If you had the funds to purchase a Mercedes/BWM/, would you really settle for a Ford Taurus, Chrystler 200/300 or Chevy Malibu? Would an Apple fan settle for a Samsung Galaxy (or vice-versa)? If you can afford to fly first-class, what is the temptation to go any other way (unless saving money is a very big issue)? Riding the bus or train is (almost) always cheaper than driving or flying, yet most of us will still chose to drive... You need not look further than your local grocery store - every single NAME-BRAND product has a generic STORE-BRAND equivalent (many of them all made in the same facility), yet the name brands do just fine despite being (much) more expensive and sometimes of lesser quality. I prediect that it will be not much different between LEGO and 3-D printed elements, no matter how rare. Your exclusive Minifigs and rare LEGO sets are safe and secure in their value for quite some time.

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    @Yellow, nicely done. I think you touch on some of the major issues faced by both users of 3D Printers and by the companies whose products 3DPs will copy or clone. I wouldn't go as far as to suggest that these companies are doomed, however. I see the influence of 3D printing _changing_ LEGO, rather than destroying it. LEGO will adapt, consumers will "enjoy" some of the convenience you outline, but both can thrive.

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    An interesting article to be sure, but there are just too many factors against any kind of process along the lines of 3D printing to make it all that profitable or even 'replace' original LEGO bricks. Even 30 years from now, I doubt that 3D printing will ever have a real professional quality by itself, with or without having to pay a very hefty sum of cash for everything like equipment and supplies. If you ever thought about creating custom minifigures, items, and/or weapons similiar to BrickArms and the like, after quite a bit of number crunching and a lot of research, you will see just how much it really costs to pull such a feat off and why they charge the amount they do. Really good equipment costs as much or more than a high-end gaming PC, and even in bulk the supplies cost an arm and a leg. Will people pay $30 for a custom minifigure? Yes. Will people pay the same for a custom set completely made from fabricated parts? Perhaps. Will that fabricated set or minifigure go up in value later on? No. Because they are not official LEGO sets or items. They are both items that some guy whipped up in his garage. Good as they are, they will not gain value simply because they are not true LEGO bricks, but essentially a knockoff at best. I think that some people could abuse this system of making their own parts by selling fake items on eBay and such by listing them as 'authentic'. Or if they are trying to sell a set that isn't complete, then they might fabricate the needed parts and stick it in there listing it as "Used/Complete" or even "New/Complete". The realm of 3D printing may change the industry to a degree, but I wouldn't bet my last dollar on it accomplishing that much. Heck, here's a comparison. Look at how advanded regular '2D' printers have become. You can print out professional quality photos, and while those are much cheaper now than before, it still costs a lot for the supplies. Oh yeah, and you have to use the ink packs within a couple of months after purchase because, even if you do not open them up, they still dry up or go caca and don't work. Frustating as hell. Anyway my point being that, even with the advancement in normal printers, there are still print shops here & there for professional quality work because the consumer equipment will never really stack up. And even if it does, the overhead in costs are just too much for a guy at home to make much of a living at it.

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    3D printing is finally affordable and great for those who love doing MOCs or custom jobs such as minifigs. But to clone generic bricks is just plain silly. If you're doing that, you're better off picking up a made in China clone such as Wange Toys. I don't think Lego needs to worry. They are already cheaper clone Lego options out there (saw a tub of 1000 Best Lock bricks for US$20!) but yet folk like us are still buying Lego. I do think that 3D printing is great for those who want to complete a model with rare parts or who want to make custom parts for MOCs. Or custom minifigs where Lego doesn't have them.

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    A main argument I would have is that I believe before 3d printing goes mainstream, they'll have licensing programmed into the printers. So to print a Lego brick, (which I concur with Rick Silver that the quality of Legos will be a substantial hurdle for them, much like it is for Mega Block and all other wanna bes) you'd need to have the licensing before getting the specs for all the required pieces along with the stickers, manuals and paint. You are right, 3D printing will make a mess of things for some companies, but the ones that provide a quality the printing can't match will never lose their edge.

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    3d plastic printers are nowhere near the quality that could have a chance of replacing the functionality of Lego parts. They model with round 1/32nd inch strings of plastic which leaves layers of ribs that shear apart under moderate stress. The current quality is like looking at a pen plotter (computerized printer that drew with ball point pens) from the early 80s and asking if the tech will replace photographs. It never did. Inkjet took off, but mostly because of the way photography changed - not because of any cost savings. Maybe in 30 years someone comes up with something nearly as good as MegaBlox, but even that isn't really competition, so I'm not worried. Kenner and MicroMachines are the ones who should worry. I could certainly see people making custom pieces to supplement Lego parts, but not as a similar quality or cheaper item. The only threat I see from 3d printing is if people start to enjoy 3d modeling on the computer more than using generalized pieces to hand-build models. But I think those kinds of people are building with wood and paint, not Lego.

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    3D printing will only change how TLC does business not make them go bankrupt. For example iTunes didn't completely wipe out CD sales, it just forced the CD makers to adapt to the new technology. That might be what TLC has to do if 3D printing gets competitive with Lego.

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    I only see this posing a problem for any current industry if the demand is there to fuel the research and refinement. In the present and near future, I just don't see a lot of necessity for this other than a really cool novelty. The good news is if it does take off, I'll finally get my USC Millenium Falcon in about 30 years.

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    This is true. I have seen this in action on a few things now. The last one I saw was about gun parts. I have one issue with this article, Al gore invented the Internet?... Please say your joking. DARPA.

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    Oh ps. They already have a self replicating version that is quite cheap, once you get it you can make more of these 3D printers which you can then give out to family & friends. This technology could free Humans from people pushing their expensive plastic stuff mostly made in China. Does this not even the odds. back to made in England & the USA. ;)

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    I work in an industry that has already seen that. It is the printing industry. Since the low cost digital printing machines - that you can have at home - everything has changed but still we are printing in three shifts. Mass production will always be cheaper than maikng it at home. LEGO prices will drop for sure and we will not need to buy replacement parts. The dog has eaten it? No problem I print one.

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    I do NOT think 3D printing will ever overthrow LEGO, because LEGO is only 1 and ONLY, atleast in our life time for the next 70 years

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    LOL. If you think the quality of other non-Lego pieces is bad, I can't wait for you to experience the quality of a 3D printed piece. No machine yet comes close to the tolerances of a die-cast brick. No machine at any price promises to produce the level of finish we see in die-cast pieces, neither today or in the foreseeable future. Perhaps in a 3D printing world, longevity won't be so important. Nevertheless, I can't imagine any level of satisfaction with the weakness of the various types of materials which are amenable to the layering process of 3D printing. I worry more about speculator bubble collapse.

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    I am a bit surprised by the reactions to this article. If making Lego bricks was easy, then why do all of Lego's competitors struggle so much with it? The accuracy required to make a brick that grips properly is very difficult to do especially with a printing technology like this. Also consider: we can all print full colour images at home, yet printing presses still exist. We can all print photo's at home yet it's still much *much* cheaper to get it printed by a professional company. The same will hold for these replicators. Fundamentaly: whatever manufacturing methodology exists: it will be cheaper to do it large scale so Lego can do it cheaper than we can. so don't worry about your Lego investment ;)

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