My first introduction to the Technic brand of Lego bricks was with the Lego Mindstorms NXT robot kit back in 2006. The earlier version of Mindstorms, the Robotics Invention System (RIS), used the typical stud-based brick building. Building stud-based robots posed a real issue when it came to building structurally sound robots — one drop from even a foot or two and an entire RIS robot could easily shatter into pieces. The NXT robot kit improved on the robot building by switching to a mix of stud and studless form of building offered by the Technic brand of bricks. Technic not only let pieces be connected in a more sturdy, durable manner, but the pieces that Lego provided to Technic builders allowed for more complex assemblies and devices.
Technic pieces come in thousands of shapes. There are axles, beams, gears, wheels, pins, and connectors that make up the core components of Technic, with hundreds or more of these pieces coming in most Technic kits. The specialty pieces such as motors, frames, and other complex parts are provided in a limited quantity in most kits, and collectors will often search out multiples of a kit in order to get two or more of a particularly rare component. While sites such as Bricklink.com allow you to purchase individual pieces you need, the best way to start with Technic is with a pre-packaged kit of parts that allow you to assemble a race car or a heavy-duty construction vehicle. Building a Technic model definitely takes more time than most stud-based Lego models, and often you’ll be assembling a complex moving assembly such as a gearing system. And Technic kits are often a little more expensive — you’ll find that most Technic models start well over $60 for a basic kit, and the $125 to $175 kits often contain 1,000 or more parts and can take hours to assemble. That said, when you’re done building a Technic model, you typically end up with an exhibition-quality model that is best suited for display rather than actual play.
Over the past few years, I’ve written a number of books that attempt to teach the basics of building robots with the Lego Mindstorms NXT kit — the kit limits me to about 600 parts, and as you run out of one particular part (beams, for example — the straight pieces that allow you to build a robot body) it often requires some real creativity to find a way to use the left-over parts to finish your build. Even with dozens and dozens of robots built, I’m still learning new tricks all the time when it comes to the Technic brand. There’s always some new method for connecting two parts or transferring power from a motor (via gears) to the wheels. As far as I’m concerned, building with Technic is one of those skills that I’ll never master… I’ll just keep learning new techniques.
There are a lot of people in this world who can blow you away with their Lego building skills. For some time now, I’ve been particularly fascinated by Yoshihito Isogawa (Japan) and his books that display hundreds (yes, hundreds) of mechanisms. He’s written a lot of books, some of which have been translated and are available from No Starch Press. His Red (Simple Machines), Blue (Vehicles)and Green (Contraptions) books were only available to me at the time in Japanese (I reviewed them for TheNXTStep.com here) but they’re now available individually or as a set from No Starch. (And if you’re a fan like me, take a look at his Orange book that I reviewed here – a bit difficult to get as it’s only available in Japan, but definitely some amazing designs!)
Yoshihito’s books are great guides for building with Technic, but they are more demonstrations of what can be done and offer very little in terms of training. You’ll find some wild mechanisms, vehicles, and contraptions that you can build and then pull apart again as you try to see how he built them and how they work. It’s a tried-and-true method for learning to build with Technic, but it does lack detailed explanations of the How and Why of a design.
What’s really been needed for some time is a hands-on Technic tutorial that offers up not only some good Technic mechanisms but also good descriptive text that can help a builder understand how to build something, why it works the way it does, and provide suggestions for moving forward. But that level of training with Technic just hasn’t been available.
Paweł “Sariel” Kmieć has just written the Unofficial Lego Technic Builder’s Guide for No Starch, and it is simply outstanding.
The 350 page guide is in full color which is a MUST for this kind of book. Technic pieces come in a wide mix of colors, but its their shapes and functions that really define them. By using full-color for the building instructions in the book, No Starch has set a high bar for future books that attempt to teach good Technic building techniques.
The book is broken into five parts — Basics, mechanics, motors, advanced mechanics, and models — and there’s not a section that doesn’t offer the reader something amazing to learn. I don’t have room here to tell you every topic covered, but I don’t have to — No Starch has made the entire Table of Contents available as a downloadable PDF that you can grab here. Take a look and be warned that the TOC is lengthy!
Let me give you some highlights, including some that I personally found useful and/or enjoyable:
* The Basics — The book opens with some easy to understand definitions of key terms in engineering — friction, traction, backlash, efficiency, etc — plus vehicle terminology such as driveshaft, drivetrain, 4wD, center of gravity, and many more.
* The Basics — One of my favorite chapters has a simple image provided for each of the key components used in Technic building — bushings, axles, universal joints, and more. Combine this with some great discussions on the benefits of combining stud with studless components, and the book really gets off to a great start.
* The Mechanics — Gears, chains, pulleys, levers, differentials, clutches… the list goes on. The book is an excellent introduction to basic engineering and mechanics for any young engineer. Know what an Oldham Coupling or a Scotch Yoke are? Me neither, but I do now.
* The Mechanics — Pneumatics! This book has all of Lego’s pneumatics covered! There are a few I’ve never seen before! Not only are the explanations clear and easy to follow, but there are some great mechanisms for you to build yourself, including a 2-cylinder pneumatic engine. If you’ve got a young engineer who wants a better understanding of how engines work, have them build one with Lego parts!
* The Motors — All of the various Power Functions motors are covered here, including the remote controls and the linear actuators (I own four of these rare components!) and there is some great discussion on how best to use them in your own models, including plans for building a steering-wheel remote control mount from Technic pieces that sits on top of a Power Functions remote — very cool!
* Advanced Mechanics — Steering mechanisms, suspension systems, and more — I’d never heard of a Tatra-type Suspension, but here it is displayed with four shock absorbers! Many more plans are provided, including: stabilized pendular suspension with a portal axle, a floating axle with four links, a heavy duty pendular portal axle, a pendular axle with worm gear, and a few more. Yes, they are complicated… and yes, they are very cool to look at.
* Advanced Mechanics — Tracked vehicles! Rubber and plastic varieties are covered, and plans for much more advanced suspension systems than I ever knew were possible with this kind of movement option for my robots.
* Advanced Mechanics — An entire chapter on transmissions, complete with detailed top-view images of all the parts and gears in place. Enough said.
* Models — A few very fun chapters to read that provide the author’s methodology for scaling a real-world device (such as a truck or race car or jet) and converting to Lego pieces. Not to be missed! There are plenty of real-world samples provided here showing the author’s work and how he overcomes some of the problems encountered when trying to build a small-scale version of a full-scale vehicle.
I actually learned some real-life mechanical concepts just from reading the chapters on transmissions! This is one of those books that just amazes me –complex ideas made easier to follow with what are basically toy pieces of plastic. Kmieć pulls it off with ease and makes it enjoyable to read.
If you’ve got a child who has discovered Technic kits, or maybe is starting to participate in FIRST Lego League’s robot building competition (or the BEST competition), this is a book that can take that student to the next level. And even if your son or daughter has no interest in playing with Lego pieces, the engineering basics provided in this book can really be helpful if they have a strong interest in machines, engines, and mechanics in general.
Note: The Unofficial Lego Technic Builder’s Guide is available now. I’d like to thank Jessica from No Starch for providing a review copy. All images are screen grabs from the book.