Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Long Tail: Getting Longer!

by Tom Bozzo

[Warning! Total dorktacularity follows!]

Last year when it went online, LEGO Factory was an awesomely awesome idea, moderately hyped elsewhere, hamstrung by a Windows 1.0 implementation. The idea is to give away computer aided design software that allows LEGO builders to buy custom sets. The online LEGO store has long featured a much broader product assortment than any general toy retailer stocks, and had also hosted some baby steps towards full set customization.

The central limitation was that to limit the startup cost (and risk) of LEGO Factory, the custom sets were made up of bags of mixed parts from several existing sets. As a result, it was possible to design fantastically expensive small creations if they didn't efficiently use the parts in the bags; more generally, customers would tend to get a bunch of irrelevant parts based on whatever method made sense to package the conventional sets.

But even if the execs in Denmark aren't clearly willing to keep their damn mitts off of the LEGO 9-volt electric train system (*), they're committed to the customization concept enough to have just sprung the Windows 95 implementation of LEGO Factory on the world. The breakthrough is that the sets are now truly customized: they just contain the parts from the custom models' bills of materials. So builders now can make extravagant use of relatively rare parts like the little brick-red plate that a Twin Cities Lego Train Club member somehow obtained in vast quantities to make this awesome bit of scenery for a train layout. The Linux-ey feature of interest is that it is now possible to import models created using the online LEGO community's homegrown (and in many respects better-developed) CAD systems.

The fulfillment problem is hard because, as the influential spaceship builder Chris Giddens points out at classic-space.com:
I've seen the complexity of the system for making 100,000 copies of one set... imagine the complexity of making one copy of 100,000 different sets.
Quite. My own collection has seen one defective brick and perhaps four or five missing pieces out of an Awful Lot of LEGO, suggesting a very low defect rate -- 1% or better at the box level. (For comparison, PC World's survey reports an average out-of-the-box defect rate of 4.3% for notebook computers.)

The remaining limitation, at this point, is almost completely in the breadth of the "palette" of bricks. With about 250 unique types of bricks, and a bit more than 500 including color variations, that's still relatively limiting. However, expanding the assortment of parts looks like an evolutionary change after the transition to full set customization. We would vote for adding the palette from the current Star Wars set line, which would be the closest thing to teh h0tness for space builders like me.



(*) The 9V train sets, a layout of which occupies a good chunk of our basement playroom, are presently endangered products. LEGO seems to have a strategic plan of occupying the gateway drug position between TtFTE and conventional model railroad varieties. Part of the plan evidently is to reduce track cost by eliminating the conductive metal rails from the 9V track. However, often elaborate layouts of 9V system trains attract a lot of attention from kids at train shows and thereby provide the LEGO Company with lots of free advertising — which they arguably need, since I posted this train picture on this not exactly comment-magnet blog and got two responses along the lines of "hey, LEGO makes trains?" For this among other reasons, I don't automatically accept propositions that marketers know what they are doing.
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