After years of giving LEGO sets as gifts to my nephews, I decided to give the same to that child in me.  And I think the "Special" in me is craving for more.  Sorry, no Kragles or Bad Cops, although President Business is still trying to whisper Instructions to me.

Kidding aside, LEGO has long since outgrown the "for-kids-only" brand, and has since grown--and continues to grow--as "the Toy" for adults, and, generations of kids and kids-at-heart who'll be weaned on the studded bricks and Mini Figures.  So, without much ado, journey with me as I tell my story of how I gave in to my inner child genius and bought two sets without much regard to personal economics.

I never thought I'd be reading these minimalist information layouts again, after more than 25 years; insightful and simple for engineering graduates and technical writers like myself.
For the first time in forever...

Not quite, just 25 long years.  If you happen to see things in the eyes of our Divine Architect, 25 years is just a burp in the history of the universe.  And if you really believe in Him, great things can happen in a single burp, one of which happened on 29 Dec 2014 (according to Toy Kingdom's BIR-registered tape receipt).

I really wanted to buy a set or two since even when I was busy with teaching, grading and other college due diligence.  But the prices kept holding me back!  So ridiculous were (no, are) the prices that a few Mini Figures will cost you PhP549, or a small themed set from LEGO City will cost the same amount for a little more than a dozen pieces!  If you don't find that exorbitant, try buying movie-themed sets like those from LEGO Star Wars, Batman or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

But wallet!

Just like Emmett from the LEGO Movie, there is a "Special" that beckons to everyone's inner "Master Builder"--even to President Business!  So I bought one set--#31020 (Twin-Blade Adventure)--from one of my trips to SM Megamall.  The price was PhP1199.75.  Not bad for a set belonging to the Creator 3-in-1 class, and since I've long fancied aviation as a child.

As I was unpacking the other Christmas goodies I got for home, and it was quite late in that evening, I decided not to open it yet.  I then went to my usual Saturday walk-run to Greenhills the morning after.  Even then, I was thinking that #31020 is...a little lonely.  So, in the middle of physical training, I made up my mind to drop by Hobbes and Landes to buy a smaller set: #31017 (Sunset Speeder; PhP799.75).

Total cost: PhP2999.50.  Cha-ching!

Beginning with the end in mind.  Each wordless instruction booklet or fan-fold shows an inset image of the finished product near the main image showing the foundations or chassis.
Let the building begin!

First, unbox the pieces in a work (sorry, play-) space where pieces aren't going to roll away beyond your notice.  It would help to organize your space by providing containers or palettes for the pieces, and, organize your process by minding the inventory of pieces (a.k.a. LEGO elements).  I would discourage working on a smooth living room glass surface as shown in the images below, especially when you have curious pets like cats at home.

Building the truck model of #31017.

The finished truck model.

Second, begin with the end in mind.  The box alone will tell you what finished products you can accomplish for a given set; the first page of the wordless instruction booklet will remind you as well.

Third, every build begins with one or a combination of the biggest, longest or broadest elements.  They don't have names, so don't be a manufacturing, inventory or logistics stickler looking for part names or numbers.  The elements with many studs (not necessarily the most studs) will comprise the frame or foundation of the build.  At this point, the inner engineer would have already established a connection with what's in front of him.

I assembled the truck model of #31017 in less than 15 minutes, and it didn't take me long to disassemble it so I can build the Formula 1 car of the same set.  It does help to have moderate-length fingernails.

The main model of #31020--a mock-up of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft--took longer than 15 minutes to build.  It has three components, each of which has at least a dozen pieces: the fuselage, the tail and the rotor engines.  This set is a fine example of modular construction, guided by modular technical writing (which very much reminds me of what I actually do in the office on a daily basis).

Building bigger: elements of #31020.

The framework of #31020's tilt-rotor aircraft model.

Again, the same process applies: unbox, organize, build.  One thing I noticed is that both sets--and likely other sets of the Creator category--contain spare small pieces.  I never experienced that before as a 10-year-old tinkering with the Space sets.  Some people would call me OC (obsessive-compulsive; usually fans of perceived psychology, not the true one), but an organized mind is a disciplined mind.  Now that's just me gloating since I'm not always that disciplined; I'm just, hmmm, protective of my investment.  Perhaps a little too protective that I spent an hour doing material costing using Microsoft Excel.

Modular construction.

The finished tilt-rotor, just like the one the USAF used in Tacloban, the colors are more Coast Guard-looking though.

You'll learn about learning

So, what have I relearned?  What do I already know that was affirmed by my encounter with today's LEGO sets?

While buying the sets, decisions will have to be made.  For one, it's expensive (if not exorbitant)!  It can mean a considerable fraction of one's monthly salary.  I then decided to buy #31017 and #31020 based on the models that can be built, the number of unique pieces, and the number of possibilities, all with respect to the total price I'm paying.  So I bought two sets--one small and one medium--to increase fun factor and variety.  One can never be enough.

To demonstrate the decision I made, and decisions I'll have to make as I add more sets to the mix, I laid out the physical and economic attributes of the sets I bought.  The top part of my spreadsheet shows that the medium-sized #31020 is marginally cheaper per unique piece.  That means more variety that will tend to increase play time.  The bottom part of the same spreadsheet shows the "what-ifs" of buying three sets in either of two combinations: two mediums (like #31020) and a small one (like #31017), or, one medium and two small ones.

In both combinations, you get a total of 130 unique pieces, but the first combination will yield you more pieces (including spares) for a marginally lower per-piece cost.  It's also way better than buying three small ones in terms of variety, versatility and possibilities.

And that's just the economics of buying LEGO sets.

You call this obsession???

LEGO building is all about structural soundness.  Then detail was added to lessons that can be learned.  Besides, what's the use of building something only to see it crumble so easily?

Take for example the #31020's tilt-rotor assembly.  There's a difference between assembling a wide propeller, and assembling a rigid wide propeller.  I can twirl the props a number of times because the way it is assembled makes it so.  That's materials engineering for the uninitiated.

Other lessons that can be learned include:

  • Inventory management (specifications vs. availability),
  • Project management (activities, events and costs),
  • Probability, statistics and counting techniques (distributions, combinations and permutations), and
  • Systems thinking (whole-part relationships).

We have learned many of those a long time ago, but LEGO--the company and its products--was never about formal education.  LEGO is all about learning!  That is why the moment one opens a box, there are no such things as part numbers or physical properties.  Open the box and discover what each piece can do; then see what a whole can do.  Take it from the Danish to throw away our old concept of Filipino-style education through memorization.

LEGO and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)

I earned my degree in Computer Engineering, and further earned graduate units in Engineering Management. I study systems and subsystems, materials and their properties, processes and subprocesses, and the money and the people that cause developments in the field.  My late father was a mechanical engineer.  He started giving me LEGO sets at a time when all things about Space and the Cold War were the rave (yup, it was the 1980's).

If you'll ask me, I just believe engineering and LEGO have a fascinating relationship: the toy brand is a catalyst, or a stimulant, for awakening the inner engineer or scientist.  I just believe, and I hope you would too, especially if you're a parent.  Here, I just relegated the scientific details to a college journal.  You can, however, go to La Consolacion College Manila and look for the August-October 2011 LCCM Research Digest if you really want to dig deeper ("STEM Education Finds Cornerstones In LEGO Bricks").

If you have decided to unlock that inner engineer in you, don't take my word or go to a college library; I am not an authority (although I sound like one) and the library will not tickle your fancy like a toy shop will.  Go to a toy shop--better yet, a specialty shop like Hobbes and Landes or Build City--and treat yourself to real LEGO toys within, at least, a PhP2000 budget.  Don't be afraid to be late bloomer, or someone who took a back-to-basics approach like I did.  Just follow the instructions at first; then follow your heart and lose the instructions afterwards.

Have fun!

(This Author wrote the said article as a commentary in the LCCM Research Digest, the publication for research idea incubation of La Consolacion College Manila.  As of this posting, there is a 10% discount to a wide variety of LEGO sets at Hobbes and Landes, Greenbelt 5, Ayala Center, Makati City.)
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