The Prasad Report: LEGO CAD!

The Manifesto is proud to present the first installment of The Prasad Report, by frequent contributor Achintya Prasad.  This highly irregular series will cover anything and everthing that falls outside the scope of his (Great Debates!) feature.  Without further ado, take it away Mr. Prasad!

Hello everyone!  After the quite literal great debate over the minifigure, I thought it would be a good idea to present a more…calming review of a few LEGO CAD software programs I’ve recently used, to allow everyone a nice breather before I find something else to throw the comments section into chaos. Here we go, the first ever review, by yours truly, an enthusiast who has never built using software, ever.

Today, constant reader, I do have a special treat for you. Not only will I be bringing you a more-or-less (un)comprehensive review of Bricklink’s new program, Stud.io, and LDD, I will also be showing you sneak peaks into a massive new build I’ve been teasing on this blog and on Flickr. I assure you (or well, I mostly assure the editorial overlords of The Manifesto) that this isn’t a shameless plug for my builds, but rather, an example of taking the program to the ragged edge. Or at least, that’s what I’m telling myself. I should explain, that I have used CAD programs before, such as Microstation Powerdraft, and Model Smart. I’m actually quite good at technology, but LEGO CAD has been a mystery to me. So, while I’m not a total idiot in this field, I’m not exactly Steve Wozniak either.

So, let’s first do some background. While the traditional LEGO brick has been around for decades, the new century has brought about a new and very exciting form of building, via various CAD software. Now, while there is a debate about whether or not these electronic elements are on par with “real” LEGO creations (whatever that means), there is no doubt that there is a fair amount of skill and patience necessary to create anything meaningful in these programs.

Arguably, the most wildly known program is the LEGO group’s offering, Lego Digital Designer, or LDD for short. This program was amazing, it offered an advanced program that allowed even some more complex creations to be built within the program. While it was supported by LEGO, the program quickly became the favorite tool for LEGO’s CAD enthusiasts, from beginner-novices to advanced experts. Perhaps the most amazing feature of the program came from its Design By Me program, which allowed you to upload your creations to the LEGO website, create a box design for your creation, and have it shipped to your front door. Of course, such models weren’t cheap, and the program was often plagued with quality control issues. This eventually resulted in the company pulling the plug on the subsection, ending one of the most convenient tools in the pocket of the LEGO builder. The program, as a whole, soldiered on until 2016, when the Denmark headquarters officially terminated support for LDD. While you can still download and use the program, the elements guides are no longer updated by the LEGO company, and there are no planned bug fixes or updates.

Now, when I decided to embark on my insane nine baseplate large project, I initially turned to LDD as the method for keeping a tally of the number of elements I would have to buy. See, my idea is build an island, a complex undertaking that would require me to learn techniques in everything from rockwork to waterfall building, not to mention stretch my capabilities as microscale builder. LDD seemed like the cheapest way to try out all sorts of different ideas without having to invest time and effort into failed prototypes. Also, I was really attracted to the idea of having an instruction manual that could guide the entire building process, though the instructions I eventually generated made little sense and weren’t physically possible in our universe.

During the construction process, I did feel the program was lagging a little in features. For instance (and perhaps I’m a bit thick in figuring this sort of stuff out) I ran into massive issues when trying to duplicate rows of tiles to cover the baseplate. This was a huge problem: at the time of writing, the project consisted of 3,100 trans-light blue tiles. Every single last one of them was manually cloned and individually placed. Yes, it was as terrible as you can possibly imagine. Another issue that consistently plagued me was the camera movement. It was hopelessly difficult to try and move the viewing angle, leaving me to just guess and hope that I was placing elements in the right place.

By the time I finished with the general outline of the island, I was really starting to look for alternatives to the program. The relatively limited element cache was hampering my attempts at utilizing every possible technique and element available. Furthermore, the sheer number of elements in my project (number at over 3,000 at that moment) were blending into each other, making it difficult to differentiate between elements.

LDD image 1

One day, as I was scrolling through the money trap that is Bricklink, I discovered a new software: Stud.io. I decided to give it a shot, mainly because I was so woefully out of touch with the LEGO digital crowd that I actually believed that LDD and LDraw were the same thing (and to be honest, I’m still not 100% sure of all the differences). Not bothering to read any of the web page, I went straight into the download stage, completely unaware of what I was getting myself into.

Studio image 1

Thankfully, my LDD file imported quickly into Stud.io. Instantly, I have to say, the camera angles and flexibility was lightyears ahead of the LEGO group’s offering. The expansive Bricklink library was at my fingertips. Each element was easy to search up, and each search would result in beautiful renderings of the part, complete with 360-degree rotation. Basically, it was heaven.

Stud.io. also banked quite a bit from LDD. As far as I can work out, the placement options for elements is about the same (or again, I’m being really thick, and some smart commenter is going to telling me something that will actually enrage me) but the connections were oh so much clearer. Stud.io also showed when an element was connected impossibly, as in the element could not exist in that connection in our dimension, and when a piece had clicked with another. These two features alone saved me hours of troubleshooting and hair pulling.

Studio image 4.png

Also, unlike LDD, the program recognized that LEGO’s illegal connections aren’t actually all that awful, and usually allow such odd combination to exist. Stud.io also began to show up LDD in its model analysis. It was very easy to get a break down of the entire elements list and associated costs from the Model Info Section. These valuable information points are difficult to gain access to from LDD, and requires the model to be exported into other software, such as BrickSmith or LDraw (unless LDraw is actually LDD in which case I’ve completely lost it). This all sounds like a positive, but unfortunately, I have a very sad story to tell you.

At around the 5,200-element mark, I realized that significant portions of my build (especially the support structure) were now submerged in hundreds of detailed rocks and trees and other elements. While I was nowhere near completion, I tore a page out of the US defense industry’s playbook, and started the dangerous game of concurrency.

To those innocently unaware of what concurrency is, think of the impossible proverb “building an airplane while it’s flying.” Effectively, I started construction of the model before finishing the entire CAD file. It’s a terrible idea, but the time savings are honestly astounding. Of course, if the method didn’t work for Lockheed Martin and its F-35 program, what chance would a middling TFOL have with such an advanced concept? After all, I still didn’t know how to use Stud.io to its fullest.

Studio image 3.png

Anyways, as I began to try to ascertain some of the hidden elements in my project, I thought it would be a good idea to get a copy of the building instruction. Except for one thing: Stud.io doesn’t have that feature. See, when I didn’t bother to read the website before downloading, I didn’t realize that the program is still in BETA, and was missing some key features. I desperately attempted to contact Bricklink, who graciously never returned my emails. I attempted to export the model into the mysterious LDraw, only to have the program fail at creating instructions. At this stage, my laptop had been working extremely hard, and, after dedicating the entire processing power to running the intensive program, began to expel hot exhaust from its heatsink, very painfully burning my hands. This was especially worrisome, as my computer, a relatively new MacBook Pro, rarely behaved in such a way. Any further jaunts with the program were limited to 20 minute installments, usually ending with burned fingertips and realizations of the fruitlessness of the instruction less CAD model I had created.

Studio image 2.png

This leads us to today, where I have decided that CAD software is absolutely rubbish (for me) and the rest of my model will be built the old-fashioned way: using hands, Bricklink orders, brick separators, teeth, paper and pencil (so I can do my scaling calculations because I’m pedantic), a baseplate, various random snacks and drink, and bucket of unorganized LEGO elements.

FINAL VERDICT:

In my opinion, Stud.io has quite a bit of potential. The ability to upload creation to Bricklink and interface with its massive database is a quantum leap for the community. Recognizing the full potential of LEGO, from the expanded database, to the illegal connections, is nothing short of amazing. BUT FOR GOD’S SAKE read the directions before you begin. Anyways, there you have it, all I can think of about Stud.io. Have you used the program, or another LEGO CAD software? Tell us your experiences in the comments down below.