Wednesday, May 8, 2013

TBs TechTalk 12 - About Track Inserts

The upcoming launch of the EV3 MINDSTORMS Edu and Retail sets have generated quite some discussion regarding the new motors, but so far we haven't had a closer look at some of the new elements that these sets will contain.

Today we will have a closer look at an element that many Technic fans have been asking for for a long time and that finally has appeared in the EV3 MINDSTORMS Edu set: Track Inserts.

This new element will not be included in the base set, but will come in the expansion pack. This pack will contain 853 elements, including 28 track inserts (LEGO ID 6036424).

We wanted to learn a little more about this new element and so we talked to Pelle Petersen (PP). Pelle started with the LEGO Company in 1992 on the LEGO Technic team. He was also one of the designers of the LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT platform and has contributed several models for the EV3 expansion set, including the amazing elephant and the Tank Bot. He was also lead designer for the track inserts.

Here is what Pelle told us:

TBs: As with most functional element, the track inserts must have been developed with a specific need in mind. What was this specific need that apparently other, already available parts couldn't fulfil? Was it mainly designed to improve traction on some floor types (which ones?) or to improve crawling capabilities (e.g. over a pile of assorted bricks), or to help dragging parts like in a conveyor belt...?

PP: The main specs are: Improve traction for the track element on a variety of surfaces: wood, tiles, carpet etc. etc.; any environment you would normally find our models in.
The wider specs are: An element that could be used when more friction is desired. Build interface, half module Technic hole/beam system.
The only other Lego element availably to improve traction would be the elastic band and that´s a quite expensive solution, it doesn’t show easily in a building instruction and the design suffers, so a new element is welcome.
To be a divider for a conveyor belt, the element would have to be taller and that goes against the rubber snap which can’t deal with a lot of side movement. It is also one of the reasons the element in only ½ module tall when built in the track element.

TBs: The track insert was speculated to be a possible incorporation in the Technic assortment right after the introduction of the new track elements. When the track links were designed all those years ago, were their pin holes already added with the intention to use track inserts, or was it serendipity?

PP: The designer on that element was Markus Kossman in the Technic group, so he would know exactly. It is common practice, when designing Lego elements, to always see if a building possibility can be added, but Markus knows for sure.  

TBs: Why now? What was the decisive argument for going ahead with the production of this element?

PP: As with many aspects in life, a lot of reasons? We had just added the track system to our new EV3 set, marketing really wanted a new element, MINDSTORS has powerful motors that can handle that extra friction etc. etc.

TBs: How much more grip do those inserts provide, compared to the standard track?

PP: I have no exact data on that…so: a lot, but not so much that it will tear normal models apart.

TBs: Can you tell us how difficult it was to find the right rubber compound to use, so that it brings some improvement rather than compromising performance on most common surfaces in our homes? Did you have to try different compounds in your tests?

PP: That was extremely difficult. Mainly because we also had to mould a rubber snap. Lego can easily mould in two different materials (hard plastic for snap / soft for friction) but in this case this would make the price grow to an unacceptable level. So we were left with soft material and that took a lot of testing before we found a good snap.

TBs: Why was the part produced in red? It makes it that much harder to use in other applications, like Technic models. Can we expect the get them also in other more useful colours?

PP: Because that is EV3 MINDSTORMS’ new “marker” colour. There is no practical issue moulding this element in other colours. To get them in different colours, another group (maybe Technic) would have to put the element in their sets, in another colour.

TBs: Can you tell me something (more) about the design stages the element has gone through?

PP: This element was unusual from the beginning, because we couldn’t initiate the design work until a very very late stage. So all design work was done in close cooperation with the engineering and manufacturing teams. A special thanks to Bo Thoning Kristiansen, Sofie Beier Nørgaard and Peter Rasmussen for helping out in an extraordinary way.

TBs: It seems this new element is an exclusive for the LEGO Education kit. Is there any justification for this situation?

PP: I think it just seems like that. Because we were quite late with the element, the deadline for other groups to use the element was pushed to next season launch.
Other groups (Technic etc. etc.) can use the element if they want.

Naturally we also contacted Markus and this is what he told us:

MK: It was a long time ago when we developed the track system, so I thought about it… and as far I can remember the first sketches were without the holes. But while maturing the element, we also looked at the small track element, to whose top it was possible to attach plates. So it was decided that this should also be possible for the new track element. Although we were already building without studs, it was a natural choice to put Technic holes in the tracks. Another important point was to give it the right Technic look, so it could be easily recognized as a Technic element.

At that time we had no plans to add a rubber element to increase friction. 

So how much friction does the element add exactly? Well, we're working on getting more exact data, but in the meantime have a look at Tank Bot while it tackles some obstacles, equipped with these new track inserts:

Hope you are as excited about the new track inserts possibilities as we are!
Soon we will raise a poll to know which other colors you would prefer to get them.


Allanp said...

very informative, thankyou. Looks like those new track pieces work great.

Captainowie said...

Thanks for that. It's very interesting to get a glimpse into what goes on behind the curtain.


Designer-Han said...

Thanks for the post and the detail info. I really wanted these track inserts in 2007 for the Prinoth Leitwolf groomer. Preferred in silver metallic... Regards, Han

TechnicBRICKs said...

I feel the track inserts will be very useful not only for tracks, but also to to create feet fr some constructions, to fill half height empty spaces and to create soft surfaces when building holders for cameras, phones, etc.

The 'axle connector double flexible rubber' it is not so helpful in many similar situations.

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