Op-Ed: What can engineers learn about electronics product design from Lego's Mindstorms NXT kit? Abstract thinking, control, diligence, efficiency, low parts count, planning, and more. And last but not least, it’s just a whole lot of fun to build robotic Lego contraptions.

My own Lego experiences began in the late 1970s. By the mid-to-late 1980s I moved on to the “Expert Builder” series (now called the "Technic" series, which would be a great fit for Mindstormsization themselves); the experience introduced me to the joys of mechanical engineering. The gears, mechanical assemblies, and pneumatics were far more advanced that other toys, even compared to Erector sets. Meanwhile I already knew about computer programming, learning LOGO and then BASIC as early as grade school. Yet there was no way to combine these hobbies, so I moved elsewhere and stumbled into radio-controlled models.

What if there were a converged technology back then? Perhaps I would have become an engineer instead of just taking an industrial design minor in college. (Not that I regret becoming a writer!)

Today’s youth have it better: they can learn from Mindstorms, which combines Bluetooth, microcontrollers, programming, and good old Lego-playing into one. The Lego Group sent me a full Mindstorms kit a few weeks ago to evaluate. My evaluation: I’d beg for this kit in a heartbeat, if only I were a child again. But child, schmild! We adults can get just as much enjoyment from this “toy” as our younger techie peers.

I built the demonstration robot, installed the graphical development software, connected the USB wire, and immediately started programming. Within minutes the robot began scampering across the floor, backing up, turning, and making if-then decisions by using its various sensors. Which leads to my only criticism: compiling, downloading, and executing programs between the software and the 32-bit microcontroller takes too long. Lego needs either a more efficient compiler, a bigger bandwidth connection type, or a faster microcontroller. My simple impatience will be utter frustration for most children.

If I had more time, I would have built the “RoboArm T-56” model – whereas the robotic insect and robotic humanoids look cool, but hey, this is still ECN, where technology manufacturing is among our fetishes. It also would be fun to build some real industrial robots, and to use aftermarket sensors such as Dataport Systems’ HiTechnic series. For those readers who do have time on their hands, I highly recommend visiting some Mindstorms enthusiast sites like the Lego Message Board, Lugnet’s resources page, Nextlog, and Nxtasy. (If you know of other useful Mindstorms NXT online resources, then please email me by using the link below.)

Update: When writing this article, I posted on two engineering forums, looking for public feedback of the Mindstorms kit. Responses arrived from EngineeringForum.org and The Institution of Engineering and Technology. Also, be sure to read my colleague Aimee Kalnoskas' editorial and therecent FIRST news.

- Evan Koblentz         email me