Friday, August 26, 2005

On The Road To Cornucopian Millitechnology

by Tom Bozzo

LEGO Factory, the coolest frickin' idea in the (toy) world, was switched on yesterday. The idea is that you use a CAD program they supply to build a model on the computer (PC or Mac, thankyouverymuch!), upload it to the Lego web site, and then may buy the bricks or share the model with the world. This looks to be a classic example of exploiting the zillions of niche markets among children and grown-ups who build their own stuff, which hipsters sometimes call the "long tail."

This being version 1.0, the execution is a bit wanting. The Brickfest announcement (also lengthy MP3 podcast here) noted that the available parts "obviously" would be drawn from a limited "palette" of bricks. That turns out to be a mildly eccentric selection of 183 brick types, not counting color variations — apparently derived from the assortments of a selection of mass-market building sets. (The Q&A session after the Brickfest keynote speech by Lego's CEO noted that there are about 8,000 active elements, including color variations; so maybe a low four figure number of brick types.) Fair enough, as they promise to add elements as they forge ahead with the project.

The more interesting question is exactly how they'd fulfill the orders. It was advertised that the system would use pre-packaged bags and as such the Factory sets would not be bespoke a la The Diamond Age. Still, one might think, what an interesting combinatorial optimization problem. This does not seem to have initially seen too much attention, as the pre-packaged parts themselves seem to be derived from the mass-market sets' assortments.

As a result, the Factory sets seem to be quite inefficient at delivering just the parts for the custom models. This is a potential marketing problem as parents balk at paying $40 for a 75-piece creation by their six-year-olds. (Typical mass-market set prices in the U.S. are around a dime a piece.)

Ideally, this will be worked-on and they'll get closer to custom assortments with time. Also, ideally Lego management will be patient and not confuse signals emanating from the supply-chain limitations with the underlying interest in the project. Leg godt!


Note on title: The smallest conventional Lego bricks are about 3mm high by 8 mm square. In some contemporary science fiction, "cornucopia machines" are nanotechnology devices that can assemble essentially anything given a source of raw materials (atoms or molecules).
Ooooo. That looks like a way to suck up every last free moment and free dollar I possess.
Unfortunately, it does seem that the initial details of the distribution scheme make the "every last free dollar" part true in a possibly undesirable way.
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