A Conversation with Dan Kees (Blog or Die! Entry #19)

Accepted entry for the “Interview” category.

Author: LettuceBrick (Nice Try)

Word Count: 1,906

Judge’s Note:

* This entry was submitted before the deadline (Mon, Jan 15, 2018 10:10 pm), but I didn’t have a chance to post it until today.  The entry is valid and accepted for final consideration.

A Conversation with Dan Kees

 

With whom? I’m glad you asked. Dan Kees is the owner of PromoTec Specialty Printing, purveyors of, well, specialty printing. Oh, and he also prints custom designs on all manner of Lego for all manner of clients. And to top it all off, he builds! So without further ado, enough blather and on to the interview.

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The Standard Questions

LB: How did you get into Lego as a child and/or adult? What keeps you interested?

DK: I probably had some type of building blocks since birth.  I had DUPLO as a baby and never remember a time without LEGO. I got my first standard LEGO set when I was five, and it’s all I ever wanted after that. I probably entered my dark ages around age 16 or so. I actually brought all my LEGO to college but only pulled it out a couple times. When LEGO joined the force with Star Wars in 1999, I was drawn back in big time, and have been building ever since. I stay interested as an AFOL because of the high stress job I have owning my own business.  LEGO works as a great stress reducer. It’s just plain fun! Another major aspect of the hobby for me now is the community. I’ve made some great friends through LEGO clubs and conventions.

LB: What are your main areas of focus when it comes to building?

DK: My wife and I put on a large LEGOWEEN display every year, so that takes up a lot of my building. I always like to make at least one large “Wow” MOC each year. Those have included a working roller coaster, a large castle, and 55 Central Park West…otherwise known as Dana’s apartment building from Ghostbusters. I don’t really have a favorite theme. I’m often inspired by a single piece and just go from there.

LB: Describe your acquisitive process and how it relates to your building.

DK: I always try to avoid buying a lot of sets, though LEGO makes that very difficult. They keep releasing such cool sets that really appeal to the AFOL community. My main budget goes to Bricklink where I buy thousands of parts for our Halloween display every year.

LB: Do you use your own printed items in creations? Other third party products?

DK: Yes and Yes. When I first started printing, I made a lot of woodgrain tiles. I use these extensively in my MOCs. However, I rarely print anything new for builds. I use a lot of custom minifigs and accessories from companies like BrickArms and BrickForge.

The Printing Questions

LB: You run a printing business which also involves Lego pieces. How did you get into printing onto Lego? Is there an engraving component as well?

DK: I’ve worked in the printing business for almost 30 years. When I first joined BayLUG, I printed some LEGO business cards for fun. I went to my first convention that same year and was really introduced to the concept of custom printed bricks. I instantly thought…hey, I could that!  I got the word out and had multiple customers overnight. I do not do any engraving, just digital and pad printing.

LB: Are there any specific challenges that Lego presents that other materials do not? Or is printing on Lego easier?

DK: Printing on LEGO is actually pretty easy. They are made from ABS plastic which accepts ink very well. They are also very consistent, which makes them easy to print in bulk…especially when printing bricks. We can interlock them in stacks and print a large quantity very quickly.  The challenge comes from running a large variety of elements. Bricks and tiles are easy, but we also print all the way around minifigs. That can get a little tricky.

LB: I assume the customer provides the design and the materials. What challenges do you face in reconciling the two and what is the most challenging Lego printing job that you’ve faced?

DK: Fortunately, we deal mostly with large custom brick resellers. They typically send artwork that is accurate and well laid out. They also understand the limitations of the process. Some less experienced customers will draw extremely detailed designs that look great on screen. However, when you shrink them down to a 16mm wide minifig torso…they don’t work so well.  Minifigures are by far the trickiest jobs. As the industry develops, people want more and more detail as well as full wrap printing. Keeping things lined up over large runs is very difficult.

LB: I know you participated as a vendor for at least one Lego convention. How did that experience compare with your more usual method of sale?

DK: Vending at a convention was tricky, because I missed so much of the convention. I quickly realized I was not cut out for retail. I really enjoy printing more than selling individual parts.

LB: What is the future of custom Lego printing for you and the market in general?

DK: The future of custom LEGO printing is really in the digital process. There are a few of us pad printing parts, which is the process that LEGO uses. Pad is great if you want your custom parts to look like LEGO made them. However digital opens up a whole new realm of possibilities with raised effects, unlimited color options, and filling in nooks and crannies that pad printing cannot accommodate. Our ratio of digital orders to pad is probably 50:1. I don’t see any end in sight for custom printing. As 3D printing and desktop UV inkjet printers come down in price, I think we’ll see a lot more people getting into custom parts and printing. I’m excited to see what the next generation comes up with.

LB: To what extent and with what rigor do you separate “hobby Lego” and “work Lego”?

DK: There is a hard and fast rule that my work and personal stock shall not mix! On the rare occasion that I supply parts for a client, I always buy them “New” from Bricklink or LEGO PAB. Some parts are inevitably ruined when used at work.

 

The Community Questions

LB: How important is the Lego community both online and more locally to you as a printer and a builder? Do you sell to AFOLs only or just conventions or also the general public?

DK: The online community is much more important to me as a builder.  I like browsing the many Facebook, fan, and other community pages. It’s fun to see what people are building around the world. I feel like I could travel to just about any country and find some AFOLs to hang out with. I don’t use the online community much for business. Many of my favorite sites do not allow commercial posts…which I totally agree with and respect insistently. I have a pretty good set of regular clients that keep me plenty busy. I mostly sell to larger resellers. I get occasional requests from other AFOLs, but our order minimums usually don’t fit their projects. I no longer sell any of my own designs.

LB: Do you have an online Lego presence, business or otherwise?

DK: Not really.  I am involved with a few Facebook pages, but that’s about it. Most of my business comes from word of mouth and repeat clients.

LB: You have of late also taken part in Bricks by the Bay convention planning. (For a while now I think.) I believe you supply the brick badges and other printed items. Could you describe some of the planning that goes into that and other aspects of the convention?

DK: Yes, BBTB is one of the biggest highlights of the year for me. I love being involved with the organization. I print the badges, and any other custom parts needed for minifigs, event kits, etc. I donate a large portion of the printing. It’s a great way to give back to the community that I’ve enjoyed for so long. Recently, my company has also taken on some of the kitting for the con. It can be surprisingly complicated, but it falls right in line with our business. It takes an exhausting amount of planning to pull off the CON each year. I tried doing too much when I first joined, so now I make sure to only take on responsibilities that I have time to do well. I’m not nearly as involved in the overall planning as I once was. I mostly focus on any custom printing needs and kit planning for the badge, event kit, and workshops.

LB: Have you participated in collaborations?

DK: Yes, mostly with BayLUG.  I love helping set up large displays. It’s something I always wanted to do as a kid but never had enough stuff.  Now we have an unlimited arsenal of builds to create huge layouts…super fun.

LB: What is the Lego community’s greatest strength? What about its greatest failings and/or weaknesses?

DK: Hmmm…interesting question. I think the community’s greatest strength is the product itself. I strongly believe that LEGO is one of the most enduring and inspiring products ever produced. I would not be in a technical/manufacturing field today without it. Our greatest weakness? I’d say we expect too much from LEGO. We oftentimes forget that this is, at its core, a toy meant for kids. The AFOL community is a large demographic, but let’s not try to fool ourselves. LEGO is a toy company and needs to be run like one. They cannot cater to our every whim…and there are a lot of them 😊

LB: Do you have any thoughts on TLG itself and its relationship with fans, both of adult and long-term variety and of the more general customer?

DK: I think TLG goes above and beyond its core responsibilities when dealing with the fan community. They have been extremely generous with their support for BBTB and BayLUG. I’m sure it’s a constant struggle within the company to balance the fan relationship with core business values. LEGO Ideas was a huge bridge over that gap. I think they’re on the right path with the level of support they offer us big kids.

LB: And at long last, what do you think the future holds?

DK: More awesome sets and new parts! I often hear people say that LEGO has lost its way with all the new parts. They would prefer we only had 2×4 bricks. Those well-meaning folks just don’t get it. With every new part, LEGO opens our building palette to new possibilities. My favorite part of viewing other people’s builds are seeing the endless creative uses of new parts.

I do hold a bit of fear towards how LEGO will compete with the digital distractions kids now face.  LEGO struggles in the digital realm, with good reason. I feel the core of LEGO is the physical, tactile relationship between the user and the medium. I’ve used LDD a bit, but nothing compares with that satisfying “click” and having a great model to show for your efforts.  Emerging markets will help keep the company strong for years to come. Hopefully, future generations don’t get too lost in screens, and will still appreciate good old fashion playing with their friends.

Thanks!

LB: Thank you very much for your perspectives on general tomFOLery and your insights into the printing side of what you do. All the best for this still relatively new year!

Mecabricks Interview (Blog or Die! Entry #16)

Accepted entry for the “Interview” category.

Author: Caleb Inman (VAkkron)

Word Count: 1,674

Mecabricks Interview

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It is my pleasure to present an interview with the mysterious man known online as Scrubs, creator and supporter of Lego CAD and rendering software Mecabricks.  Ladies, gentlemen, and constant readers, please put your hands together and lend your ears as we pull back the curtain on the life and work of the one and only Mr. Nicolas Jarraud!

[Caleb Inman: CI; Nicolas Jarraud: NJ]

CI: Hello Nicolas!  Can you give me a brief description of yourself, either education or career, and your interest in Lego?

NJ: I was born in France in the early 80s and like most kids there I played with LEGO in my childhood. The sets that we owned with my sister are now in a big case stored at my parents’ place. I currently live on the other side of the globe in New Zealand where I moved more than a decade ago. Until recently I was designing production equipment for a medical company. I am now working for a big tech company as an optical engineer where we design the next generation cockpits for traditional and self-driving cars.

My dark age finished somewhere in 2011 when I started Mecabricks. I had to catch up on 15 years of LEGO products and history! From this date, I accumulated a big amount of sets. Way too many according to my wife. Some of them to keep like the modular buildings and others only for parts that I model.

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Render credit: Nicolas

CI: Impressive to hear you actually buy parts in order to model them for your parts library.  That’s an amazing level of dedication.  Do you actually use those Lego pieces that you’ve bought to build anything?  What made you decide to devote your time to virtual building, and why do you believe virtual building is important?  What are benefits of digital Lego modelling over physical building?

NJ: I am not really a builder. I can barely follow the instructions from the LEGO manuals and I always have pieces remaining at the end! I am not bringing any news by saying that LEGO is expensive. Building virtually allows to use any quantities of any parts in any colours. Freedom! You are not constrained by physics. Parts can intersect and are not subject to gravity. This is a different way of thinking and it can appeal to both people wishing to build their creations later with real bricks or simply create something more abstract that is not possible in real life.

To put it in a wider context, this is also a fun way for kids (or adults) to discover CAD (Computer-Aided Design) and maybe generate vocations. With the likes of 3D printing or laser cutting being more and more accessible to the public, understanding CAD system is a nice to have skill.

CI: I know exactly what you mean, and in fact I was one of those kids who decided to be an engineer because of my experiences with Lego CAD programs.  However, I used LDD, and there were other CAD programs available for Lego building before Mecabricks.  Can you describe your experience with them, and the problems they had that you are trying to solve with Mecabricks?

NJ: LDD is not for me. Too many constraints. I am not able to build anything with it. I always end up fighting with parts to put them in the right orientation at the right place. LDraw based CAD software were maybe the opposite at the time. Too much freedom and therefore the same issues. I have also been asked multiple times why Mecabricks was not using the LDraw part library – For the same reason I wanted something unique for the building tool, I did not want to depend on a third-party library. I managed to create a whole separate system using modern tools and modern formats.

Overall, I love technical challenges which was probably the main driver. Bringing more options to people is also not a bad thing. All of them are very different in the way they work.

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Render and model by saabfan2013

CI: So Mecabricks is essentially build from the ground up.  Very impressive.  What else makes Mecabricks unique?  Has developing a community forum and website helped to generate interest in your CAD program?

NJ: Mecabricks doesn’t need to be installed. This is only online. You open your browser on your computer or your tablet and you have all your files available with the latest version of the tools and the parts. It all happens seamlessly. This is a big advantage for example for schools where it can be a complicated process to get anything installed on the kids’ machines.

Mecabricks is also a great place to discuss everything about digital LEGO. The forum is still pretty basic but includes a lot of great tips for building and rendering. You will find there talented people with different skills: Renderbricks for technical stuff, Zanna for the artistic side, Saabfan (one of the designer of the Apollo Saturn V set)  for the building technics to name a few.

CI: You are doing some ground-breaking work with digital render systems.  First, tell me how these renders are becoming more and more realistic, and closer to mimicking real-life photography.

NJ: It is only in 2014 that I have been pushed by user Renderbricks to create export tools so that models could be opened in traditional 3D software. This has brought Mecabricks to a new level and I am now working at making this even easier and more accessible to a wider audience.

My favourite software is of course Blender and in the recent years the community has been really active. The rendering engine called Cycles is now mature and powerful. I am closely following the development and every new feature they provide is implemented in the Add-ons available on Mecabricks.

In the past few years I also spent way too much time observing and taking close shots of LEGO elements to understand how they interact with light. Being an optical engineer was a big help.

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Render credit: Nicolas

CI: I wouldn’t have thought of that.  That’s a great way to combine career experience with your hobby.  I am sure the technical expertise extends far beyond light and computer programming. Is the hardware system just as complex?  Also, what will be the availability of this render feature?

NJ: This new feature of Mecabricks will be available in the second half of January 2018. It will be possible to create stunning images in your browser without special knowledge. Although the use is very simple, this is not the case of the system that is running in the background.

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Render by Renderbricks

CI: I have heard the phrase “render farm” used.  Can you describe what that means and how is this the best option for builders who want to render their models?

NJ: The main issue with 3D rendering is that it takes a lot of power and a lot of time. It can take multiple hours for common home computers to calculate a single frame. So, the idea here is to send the LEGO scene to special computers that are built for this task only. When the render button is clicked, a 3D file is created and sent to New Zealand. This file is then converted to a Blender scene and shared among multiple computers to be rendered. The final image is assembled and composited before being sent back to the user.

As an example, a 4K images (3840×2160) that would take more than 3 hours to be generated on my 3-year-old iMac is only taking about 7 minutes with the system I designed and built. Everything is optimized for LEGO rendering.

Ease of use, quick turnaround and guarantee to use the latest render features available are the key aspects of the Mecabricks render farm.

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Render by Nicolas; Model by IstakaCiti (link unavailable)

CI: Who is your target audience?  Can builders from other Lego CAD software export their models into Mecabricks?

NJ: Anybody willing to showcase a digital 3D LEGO creation. I think it will be popular among designers posting projects on the LEGO Ideas platform. Having nice presentation images is a bonus to ensure a good visibility.

It is currently possible to import LDD models in Mecabricks with some limitations. But with minimal rework in the workshop the result it pretty good. Obviously, I am not a wizard and parts not available yet in Mecabricks cannot be imported.

CI: What will be the cost to use the rendering feature?

NJ: To be announced very soon but very affordable anyway. The goal is to find a balance to be able to pay for electrical power and any future hardware development.

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Render by Renderbricks

CI: What do you plan to do next?  Where will your innovations take you in the future?

NJ: The to-do list is never ending and the community growing. So, I try to share my time between running what is currently existing and designing the future of Mecabricks.

The next big feature that is long overdue is an instruction builder. The goal is to make a tool that is both easy to use and powerful enough to create high quality manuals.

CI: I know many builders from both the physical and virtual branches of the hobby have been waiting for an easy, comprehensive instruction builder for a long time.  That will be a massive innovation.  Before I conclude this interview, is there anything else you’d like to share with these wonderful constant readers?

NJ: Building digital LEGO models is fun and the possibilities endless. Give it a try.

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Render and model by saabfan2013

CI: You do incredible work and I have seen the excitement of people who have been able to use the render farm.  The results look spectacular.  Thank you for doing this interview, and I hope you keep up your excellent work!  Best of luck in the future.

 

*All images in this interview are made with the Mecabricks render engine and courtesy of their respective creators.