Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Build sturdy and stiff!

This may turn into a controversial post... Read it, at your own risk!

Sometime ago, one of you raised my attention to both a BrickLink and independent stores, selling Technic like parts made of aluminum.
Of course it sounded interesting to me, so I had to make some investigation about...

What I found was a guy (Bill Shaw) in US (Florida), who decided to start producing Technic like liftarms made of aluminum, as well as some other custom parts made in the same material.

Below and before some mere detailed considerations, I left you with the links to Bill's independent and BrickLink stores:
- Inanimate Reason (Shop)
- Bill's Brickland (now also Inanimate Reason, and the direct link to the custom parts)

It all started as a supplement to enhance Bill's MINDSTORMS projects. All the elements are made to work with the original LEGO Technic elements, but what makes them interesting is the fact of being made from high grade 6061 aluminum, instead of plastic. All the elements are designed in shapes not available through LEGO, but that somehow may help you to solve some specific needs.
Aluminum gives exceptional strength and rigidity while remaining relatively lightweight. Strength lets you build bigger, taller and sturdier while enhanced rigidity helps stiffen your model/chassis.
As far as I've tested some samples that Bill was kind enough to send me, each of these parts weight about three times, what their ABS equivalent would weight. At the same time they are a lot more resistant and won't bend or twist as easy under load and stress conditions.
As these parts are also produced in larger sizes, they will allow you to create longer and more resistant structures without the need to bridge as often. By using a single aluminum beam, you'll have far stronger frames with fewer weak points.

The idea for an independent store, came due to the fact that custom parts are not tied to the extensive catalog of LEGO parts in BrickLink's database. Consequently they won't show up in a BrickLink search, thus you must know they exist and understand how to navigate the site to find them.
Also the little detail allowed in BricLink descriptions and considering that as the product range expands these elements will become less LEGO dependent and more a crossover product, made evident the need for an independent store.

As for the custom parts themselves, they have holes which are 1 thousand of an inch smaller then LEGO ones, to make the Technic pins fit tighter to accommodate the extra weight from the aluminum liftarms. The Technic axles and non-friction pins still move freely with no resistance at all. The pins require a little extra effort to install and remove, but you are rewarded with much tighter connections that have less slop.

The aluminum elements are all machined and initially there there were some in both natural shiny and black anodized versions. Actually the store is offering the black anodizing as a free custom service by request.
If the customer wants some or all of the ordered elements sent with a black finish, this is done at no extra charge, just adding about 10 days to the shipping time, for the anodizing step.

The currently available parts can be divided in a few categories and as mentioned above, they are all designed in complementary shapes not available from LEGO. Lets take a closer look.

Longer odd sized liftarms
LEGO liftarms are predominantly made in odd numbered sizes up to 15L.
Here straight liftarms, are produced in lengths up to 25L (17, 19, 21, 23 and 25).
These longer and stronger liftarms are ideal for getting some extra reach in booms, vehicle chassis and towers.

17L at left and 25L at right image

Even sized liftarms
These are produced in lengths down to 6L (12, 10, 8 and 6)

6L at left and 10L at rigth image

Special liftarm shapes
There is a 1 x 9 Bent (5-5) liftarm with a 135º angle despite also different from  the LEGO standard (143º) - Here you may find a good justification for the original angle, after all it seems all derived from the Phytagorean Theorem. And there is a 6-6 Adjustable Angle liftarm ranging from 60 to 300 degrees (fixed with a 2 mm allen wrench) which reaches 11L when extented and has alternate hole patterns at each section.


The next couple, is a pair of right angled parts. One 4x4 L-Shape (curiously an "original" part listed at BrickLink, but never seen) and one 5x3 T-Shape. All these with standard hole pattern.

And last but not the least we get another set of innovative parts. One 9L 45º Arc liftarm and a 19L Crossover liftarm with 3L tall.
The arc is 9 holes (5 deg/hole) and 8 pcs make a full circle with 12L center radius. Hole pairs along the curve are perfectly spaced and suitable for connection to other liftarms.
Below you can see also a picture the perfectly illustrates how some Technic connectors and pins still connect with the curved liftarm. This being achieved at no noticeable extra cost or parts stressing.

The Crossover liftarm features four 135º bends. Its 19x3 shape allows for instance, to build a vehicle chassis with high clearance to ground.
It offers a total of 19 different connecting pinholes on both horizontal and vertical directions, for utmost flexibility.

Extended connectivity liftarms
Assortment also includes some parts which offer increased connectivity possibilities, namely with multiple orientation pinholes in the same beam or pinholes with 1/2L offsets which we will better depict ahead in this section.

Some available parts have pinholes in both horizontal and vertical faces or directions, for increased connection possibilities. Probably at the cost that sometimes you won't get the pinhole with the orientation you need at the right place you need it.
There are 3 and 5L versions with alternate hole pattern and a 7L version with a 2-3-2 pattern. There is also a 21L version with 7 groups of 3 standard spaced holes at alternate beam faces.

The second class of extended connectivity liftarms, as I've called them, are two liftarms which offer offset holes. In a traditional liftarm, the holes are evenly spaced. Here holes or groups of holes are offset by 50% from the adjoining hole (1/2L). This may increase building complexity, but also offers extra possibilities where required, allowing for instance to create gear trains with ratios not otherwise possible.
On a standard beam you can fairly easily inter-mesh the 8, 24 and 48 tooth gears, since their center holes align perfectly with the standard holes grid spacing. However if you want to mate any of these gears with a 16t gear you'll need to add a second dimension.

There is a 19L liftarm (18 holes) with third hole offset for special gearing ratio (e.g. 24 and 16 tooth), and one 24L straight liftarm with 21 holes spaced in 7 groups of 3 (50% offset between groups).

Below an example where with one of these liftarms, you can have a 16t gear sandwiched between one 24t and one 48t, making both outer gears to rotate in the same direction (despite the pointless example because it could be also achieved with any a 8t or any other).

Connection kits
There are also connection kits, combining the custom machined elements above or similar, with items sourced from third parties to allow for complete solutions. The example can be the "Screw on Connector" kit.

With these you can take your Technic based models and integrate them with off-the-shelf RC components such as servos and controllers. You can connect through existing LEGO or custom liftarms and attach liftarms together, much more securely than with a Technic pin (or even a row of pins), wherever it may be required.
The "Screw on Connector" kits provide a set of small liftarms that contain a mix on Technic compatible pin holes and threaded holes for attaching cap screws. Refer here for a complete inventory list.

Drivetrain with miter gear kit
This was the last addition. According to the authors claim, it allows the creation of extremely robust drivetrains.
In the images below, the kit constituent elements [1] and a built example. For more details refer to the respective article, at the Inanimate Reason.

The gearbox illustrated in the demonstrative built is different from the one included with the actual kit version.

But there is more to come in the future... Ball bearing embedded liftarms for high torque applications; adapters to use LPF XL motors and other higher torque RC motors; transmitter and receiver interfaces for RC motors, servos; USB servo/motor controls for Win XP, etc...

For more information about all this, you may read in the links provided at the top of this post.

Build it longer, sturdier and stiffer!

As far as I've learned, metallic parts mentioned in this post are not sold anymore at BrickLink by Inanimate Reason store, but from the original producer.
Brick Machine Shop, from Khanh Ly (Eezo)

Last Update: 2012.Mar.02 07:05 CET


Jernej said...

Nice and all, but than it isnt Lego anymore... May be good for some individual problems (long chassies), but i dont really think i will ever use them.

Daniel said...

The aluminium gears and axles will come in the most useful, as the plastic gears and axles bend and slip too much under high torque. The metal frames will be good for enclosing gears - to prevent them from slipping under high torque.

I hate the idea of simplifying structures (+ building them quicker) just because we have access to stronger parts. It is much more interesting to make things stronger using diagonal beams etc, but using plastic. Unfortunately plastic beams don't come in 6L, and 6L half beams are very rare. 6L is a good size because it is easy to create a 3,4,5 right-angled triangle (6L = 5L from center to center).

Are there any aluminum differentials?

Roboduino said...

Interesting enough but it's not LEGO. Moving right along.

Anonymous said...

That's not Lego anymore. :o
Moreover, parts are horribly expensive. :o
To built something sturdy, we have studful parts. :o


PS : the warning at the beginning of your article is definitely a good idea ! ^^

Jetro said...

I'm not at all likely to start using these parts, but from what I've seen these parts are excellent quality both in tolerances and finishing.

True, it isn't LEGO any more, but that really is a very personal matter: I mean, where does not-LEGO start, or end for that matter - custom decals, boring out Pneumatic cylinders or modding other parts...

As for the price, since these are limited production, custom made parts I would say they are very well priced (have a look at custom train wheels for example!!)

arezey said...

Hmm. Cool.. but yeah it's not LEGO anymore. Cool ideas for parts however... is something I've often wished to exist in ABS - like axle 4 with stop.

Gray said...

sweet this is 25 times better than lego.

andythenorth said...'s not Lego...but I'm tempted. I don't know what I'd use them for, but they look cool. With the large PF motor it's quite easy to destroy gears in a drivetrain.

Meanwhile with a large vehicle, the ABS beams are very prone to bending. The chassis of my large oilfield truck has three lines of double beams, plus triangle liftarms. It's insanely heavy :o

Lifelites aren't strictly Lego either, but some Lego fans love them (they're cool too) :)

Christophe said...

I wonder if there is not an infrigement of industrial property here. The material is different but the design is the same for many pieces.

Jetro said...

Not sure. They don't duplicate any existing pieces, do they?

Shep said...

Me <--- Lego Purist.

But man, if they had the Lego logo, I would scoop them up in piles. I build very large things and have begged for some of these parts. I love the long beams, I could use dozens. But that is also where the engineering comes into play, build within what you have on hand.

I want metal axles. The new PF motors almost demands it in some cases.

If Mr. Shaw could come to a partnership like HiTechnic did, he has a customer in me. But I don't see that happening.

I displayed the Flexpicker at a robotics trade show and was able to advertize "100% Lego." I don't want to loose that. But I do love the idea, and really wish I wasn't so anal about it.

Tristan said...

It isn't Lego, but it is pretty damn close.

I think when used sparingly in a model it would be acceptable but that would be about 1-4% maximum in my opinion.

I currently have a project that could use these it it would make it look heaps better. (unfortunately it is expensive and lego isn't my only hobby)

legodude said...

Well, this fits pretty nice with some of the Tetrix stuff out there, I wonder if it can be used in Tetrix creations...

Junkstyle Gio said...

It's Technic(al)and Brick(ish), but it is not my cup of tea.
For me, these aluminium parts take away the charme of Lego. (Being a toy.)

Conchas said...

In fact I was not expecting the biggest reception, from many of those who follow the blog and with more willingness to leave here a comment. :)

Probably it may be more interesting and acceptable for some of our occasional readers.

Even I have some mixed feelings about this, nevertheless I considered it a very relevant for the blog and worth to post.

Remember to have seen something very similar about one-two years ago. A guy building RC cars with parts also in Aluminum that mimic LEGO Tecnhic.
Unfortunately can't find it anymore. :(

Daniel said...

I've just done a few tests on an IR receiver using a multimeter, and it appears the resistance between the two middle connectors drops during Brake mode (but not during coast mode).

Al said...

These parts look very well made but as a purist, I won't be using them. I also think the metal would cause alot of wearing of the plastic if you're not careful.

RjbsNXT said...

I definitely won't be buying any of these.
They seem very tempting and all but as I am, it would be cheating to use these. Very well, they are incredibly useful for chassis' but I am very happy with LEGO as it is at the moment, and I see no need for stronger parts just yet.
Another reason I won't be buying them is the awkwardness involved in buying single pieces (I tend not to use BrickLink but sets from S@H ;))

Conchas said...

I realized that maybe it worths to mention, that I'm not trying to sell you anything! :D

Anonymous said...

I'll buck the trend. I'd quite happily buy these parts, if my budget allowed it.

The main objection to non-Lego parts for me is part quality, not some mystical "Lego-ness" that makes Lego bricks unique. If a competitor were to produce bricks to the same exceptional standards as Lego, I would be happy to support their business too. After all, "what can I make with this part" is far more important than "who made this part".

These are machined to high tolerances, use a more than acceptable material, and are compatible. The only downside is their price.

Laurence said...

Very neat! Like Anon, I like Lego for its quality, and am open to getting third-party parts if they're of comparable quality.

Also, like Jetro said, these parts aren't really that expensive considering that they're custom made. Machining aluminum to Lego tolerances takes some skill.

Clearly the guy producing these is a fellow Lego fan given the attention to detail apparent in the designs of these parts. (I *love* that the arc beam has correct spacing for adjacent holes -- very elegant. And who but a die-hard Technic builder would know which beam lengths are "missing" from the standard inventory?) I'm really tempted to get a few of these parts... I've just got to figure out how I'd use them. :-)

nicjasno said...

This is what i was waiting for. I wonder if he takes requests. :)

The beams are out of the question, because they add unnecessary weight to the models, but gears and axles and maybe a custom wheel hub (also universal joints), those i would buy. I will definetly follow this.

AVCampos said...

I'm with most of the people here, by being of the opinion that this already hardly qualifies as LEGO: to me, this is more like Tetrix or Meccano, and that's something about that that somehow for me takes the charm away.

I guess it would have something to do with the challenge of adapting my ideas to the pieces I have available instead of vice-versa, but, on the other hand, I almost always drool when I navigate sites like MindSensors', or when I think about those PF pneumatic parts we all would like to have. So, I lose all base of argument... oh well, bummer.

iMarc said...

this is very cool stuff... let it be only as an amazing coffee table conversation piece.. c'mon admit having a 25L beam like that beautifully carved in Aluminum lying around for fun!! ... how about getting this as the coffee table
Now THAT is expensive!!!

Al said...

@ iMarc


sqiddster said...

I would say that these pieces are a great idea. I personally have no problems with using non-lego pieces in my models (and some highly respected builders don't either... just ask Jennifer Clark :) )

Anyway, that's just my two cents. However I would probably not make a purchase, at least until they give us some axle-compatible gears and axles... C'mon, who wouldn't die for an aluminium helical gear or metal 36L axle... ahhhh.

but I respect the purists. I agree with Shep that the '100% lego' label is a sad thing to lose. But if it lets me build bigger or better, then I'm all for it.

DocJKL said...

I'd buy 25-stud beams maybe, but nothing else this time. I'm waiting for axles made of aluminium or steel...

Gray said...

im still saying the same thing.. if another company makes this and it surpasses lego, then lego can go bankrupt for all i care.

Johnny E said...

Now there are some pieces Lego SHOULD be making! Lego has been making new parts a lot the last years with their Bionicle stuff etc. when they need them.

I think we are not seeing these as Lego parts because the mold costs dont outweigh the usage in perhaps 1 Technic set.

I will probably pick up that awesome gear kit, the connection kit and some loose liftarms.

It is alunimum, so I am not that worried about the weight.

Maloeran said...

I have ordered many such pieces, and my experience with them has been entirely positive! Though, I wish the metal axles would be cross-shaped for greater compatibility with plastic pieces.

And to answer a previous question, if you need custom shaped L or T beams for example, Bill does take custom orders!

Anonymous said...

Why is everybody complaining about the fact that these parts aren't "real" Lego? It works well, is stronger, and expands the Technic system, so I don't see why you'd pass it off as unofficial and therefore useless. I don't care if they aren't Lego; they look pretty useful to me, especially the 25L beams. Bravo, Mr. Shaw! It's people like you who attract me to this blog;innovators who aren't afraid to market their own inventions.

Fernando Correia said...

As far as I've learned, metallic parts mentioned in this post, are not sold anymore at BrickLink by Inanimate Reason, but from the original producer.

Brick Machine Shop, from Khanh Ly

Robbo said...

Reminds me of Meccano.

Simon Burfield said...

I reviewed stuff like this 2 years ago

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