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Brick CAD: Building a Bridge to Job Skills

Lego Digital Designer
Lego Digital Designer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
April 6, 2015 Deadline
May 2015 Issue

Building things provides me with hours of relaxation and a sense of accomplishment. As children, we appreciate the creativity expressed by Tinker Toys, K’nex, Lincoln Logs and LEGO bricks. As we age, we discover new building kits, from detailed plastic models to advanced robotics kits. Yet, for many of us nothing beats the plastic, stud-covered bricks.

Though LEGO remains the undisputed king of plastic bricks, interesting kits are available from Best-Lock and Mega Bloks. And recently, I discovered the challenges of working with Nanoblocks from Japanese toy company Kawada. Nanoblocks are one-eighth the size of standard blocks. Following standard plans, the resulting models are incredibly small.

The real joy of bricks, however, isn’t in following a plan designed by someone else. Completing a Taj Mahal or Empire State Building model feels like a huge accomplishment, with some models requiring 10,000 bricks. Designing your own model plans can be more rewarding.

Among the best brick artists are Nathan Sawaya ( and Christopher Tan ( You can purchase some plans from Tan’s online store. Several books of Sawaya’s art exhibits are available, too. Skyhorse Publishing offers books of famous stories recreated as brick art, from Greek myths to the complete plays of Shakespeare.

For several years I have used bricks in my classes to teach the challenge of writing instructions for others to follow. Once students try written instructions, we explore the value of visual instructions. IKEA and LEGO use illustrations for a reason: pictures are often better than words when you need to explain tasks.

To create their visual instructions, my students turn to computer-aided design (CAD) software.
The official LEGO CAD application is LEGO Digital Designer, available from the LEGO website ( LDD, or “Designer” as some hobbyists refer to the program, is a full-featured CAD program for Windows and OS X.

Students love using Designer. My students compare using Designer to creating objects in Minecraft, an online virtual world. Designer is more complex than Minecraft, and college students appreciate that it never feels like a toy or children’s game. Designer is a “real” CAD program because the resulting plans correspond to something other people can build.

LEGO hosts a gallery of models created by Designer users. These hobbyists also post their plans to other online communities. An active “Adult Fans of Lego” feed on Reddit features links to new models and questions about parts ( The community includes online forums and tips for creating new models.

CAD programs like AutoCAD, SolidWorks, TurboCAD and VectorWorks require months or even years to master. Designer can be mastered in a few days and the resulting plans are as professional as anything LEGO includes in retail model kits. Using the keyboard arrow keys to rotate pieces and the mouse to place them takes a bit of time to master. High-end CAD programs have always required a mix of keyboard and pointing device dexterity.

As models grow more complex, the limitations of Designer can frustrate a user. My students create kits with a hundred or fewer bricks, which is quite manageable within Designer. Though you can create far more complex models using Designer, serious hobbyists tend to trade the application for one of the more powerful open-source brick CAD applications.
The limitations of Designer include a limited brick selection and a single design viewport.
With other brick makers increasing in popularity, hobbyists with programming skills have created several alternatives to Designer that include expanded brick libraries and high-end CAD features. Hobbyists wanting to go beyond LEGO need to turn to another brick CAD choice.
As the official LEGO CAD application, Designer only features LEGO bricks.

The single view within Designer can feel frustrating as you try to determine how bricks align. Real CAD applications feature multiple viewports, so designers can see front, back, side and top views. As models increase in complexity, the ability to see a design from multiple angles helps visualize the results.

Alternative brick CAD applications tend to be based on the LDraw (“LEGO Draw”) open source engine. For a list of applications and utilities created by hobbyists, visit the website. The two most popular open-source, and therefore free to use, CAD applications are MLCAD and Bricksmith.

MLCad (Mike’s LEGO Computer Aided Design) runs on Windows and offers more features than LDD. For serious brick designers, MLCad might be the best application available. With multiple views, easy brick placement and the ability to animate building steps, MLCad goes well beyond what Designer can do. To download MLCad, visit LM-Software ( and locate the software download links.

Bricksmith runs on Macintosh systems with OS X 10.5 and newer. Bricksmith is an LDraw application, allowing it to open and save plans that are compatible with MLCad. I like the floating pallets more than the now-popular “unified” interface of design applications. Bricksmith lacks the polish of MLCad, but the program is updated more often by a team of developers. Bricksmith is hosted on the popular open-source site SourceForge (

The toys of childhood offer real job skills. Beyond the curiosity these toys encourage, learning to create new models leads to the development of advanced skills.

Learning to use Designer and other brick CAD applications exposes students to a number of valuable job skills. CAD skills are required in construction and manufacturing, for example. The language of CAD, such as creating a parts list as a bill of materials (BOM) and printing “iso” (isometric) versus traced images, is a specialized jargon.

Working in CAD reinforces math skills, spatial reasoning and analytical thinking. Creating plans for others to use requires careful consideration of what steps belong together and why. Many of my students are interested in manufacturing and engineering careers. Brick CAD applications are the perfect way to introduce anyone to CAD concepts.

My students have created brick castles, tropical retreats, assorted aircraft and a Zamboni model in Designer. They not only create the model kits, but some have created boxes and marketing materials. Thinking about the real business of toy design means my students master much more than the computer-aided design of LEGO kids. They learn to think like entrepreneurs.


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