Modeling the Bones for Massive LEGO Sculptures
Jean Thilmany posted on March 13, 2018 |

Many engineers and designers have cut their teeth building everything from buildings to vehicles to entire cities, with plastic connecting bricks. But few adults have managed to turn their childhood hobby into a full-time job.

Duncan Titmarsh, originally a builder by trade, is one of those exceptions. He’s put his certification as one of only 16 LEGO® Certified Professionals in the world to good use. Eight years ago, he founded Bright Bricks, where more than 30 LEGO brick artists spend their days building life-size LEGO brick models for businesses, museums and traveling exhibits, among others. 

From the Bright Bricks Kingdom touring show. Visitors can walk through a medieval fantasy land made up of life-size sculptures of characters from LEGO Kingdoms to help Princess Orra save the Brick Kingdom from the evil Baron. (Image courtesy of Bright Bricks.)
From the Bright Bricks Kingdom touring show. Visitors can walk through a medieval fantasy land made up of life-size sculptures of characters from LEGO Kingdoms to help Princess Orra save the Brick Kingdom from the evil Baron. (Image courtesy of Bright Bricks.)

Since its inception, Bright Bricks, in Bordon, England, about 50 miles southwest of London, has created a large-scale model of the Rolls-Royce Dreamliner aero engine, a working tunnel-boring machine for Bechtel, and Kingdom, a touring LEGO show that takes participants on an interactive, medieval quest that includes dragons, castles and princesses made from LEGO bricks.

Bright Bricks builders assemble the models by hand, one brick at a time. But they do need to plan and model their creations with much more preliminary thought and expertise than they did when they worked with LEGO bricks as kids. And for that, they call on the computer-aided design software Solid Edge from Siemens. To keep the models from tipping or falling, builders first create an interior steel structure to stabilize all models that are taller than one meter. Solid Edge’s convergent modeling tool is used to design these internal skeletal structures, explained Kirsty House, a Bright Bricks industrial and product designer.

“I like working at Bright Bricks because no two days are ever the same,” said House. “One day we're building a 3.2-meter-tall dragon and the next 2,000 tiny penguins. It’s almost impossible to describe an average day because it's so manic here.”

One thing she hadn’t been so keen on in the past, however, was designing the internal frame of the models.

A 3D LEGO brick sculpture begins as a 3D model, usually sourced from online. LEGO artists first import the model into software that allows designers to repose and tweak certain aspects of it, House explained.

“When we’re happy with the basic pose, we import it into a program called BrickBuilder,” she added. “It’s a program that the LEGO company itself uses, but we’re able to use it, too, due to our managing director being the U.K.’s only LEGO Certified Professional.”

BrickBuilder converts the model into LEGO bricks. It’s at this point that the designers turn to Solid Edge for the models that require an internal framework, House said. 

She credits the Solid Edge program with speeding along the build of the LEGO brick structures, helping the designers translate their concepts into finished models faster than was ever before possible.

House’s industrial design education helped her visualize the best way to fit the 3D structures inside the models. She also used her knowledge of engineering, loads and mechanics to make the models safe and secure. But that process was very slow, and designers wanted the convergent modeling capability, speed, and assurance that Solid Edge could provide.

“Before we got Solid Edge to create steel, we used to hand draw the engineering drawings for the internal steel structures. Not only did this take forever, but it also involved a lengthy process to even get to the point of drawing the steel,” House said. “We would need to start with orthogonal views of the LEGO brick model and actually count the layers of bricks to work out the dimensions of the steel. Sometimes the squares representing each brick were smaller than a millimeter.”

This lion was part of an exhibit installed last summer at Marwell Zoo, near Winchester in the English county of Hampshire. The exhibit, which ended in October 2017, is now touring with 81 models and 27 species made of LEGO bricks. (Image courtesy of Bright Bricks.)

This lion was part of an exhibit installed last summer at Marwell Zoo, near Winchester in the English county of Hampshire. The exhibit, which ended in October 2017, is now touring with 81 models and 27 species made of LEGO bricks. (Image courtesy of Bright Bricks.)

Of course, the process wasn’t exact, with mismatches occurring along the way. Sometimes, builders had to shave steel from the internal structure to place bricks around it in the correct layout. Also, it took several weeks to create the drawings. That same process now takes days.

The convergent modeling method simplifies work with geometries composed of a combination of facets, planes and solids. Time-consuming data conversion is no longer necessary.

“In the past, it would have taken at least two weeks to figure the structure out for the 1.5-ton elephant,” House said. “And now, it took less than two days!

“Convergent modeling makes it possible to directly transfer the files of our 3D models into Solid Edge and to use them there as a reference for the corresponding steel structures.

“Solid Edge also allows us to see inside the LEGO brick model so we can make sure that the entire steel frame is all encased inside the LEGO bricks,” she said. 

Using Solid Edge, House is able to see inside a large Bright Bricks sculpture design and place the steel structures that will support the sculpture’s weight. (Image courtesy of Majenta PLM.)

Using Solid Edge, House is able to see inside a large Bright Bricks sculpture design and place the steel structures that will support the sculpture’s weight. (Image courtesy of Majenta PLM.)

To get this inside view, designers use the Live Section tool in Solid Edge, which produces a cross-section of the model on a plane, allowing the designers to view a slice of the model.

“Working with a number of these Live Sections allows us to draw paths that the steel can then follow, being confident that the steel is completely inside the LEGO bricks,” House said.

“But the biggest Solid Edge selling point was that it was quite literally the only CAD package that I could find that did all of the things we needed it to do!” she added. 

“Synchronous design, for example, lets us do just about anything without the need to roll back the model tree like you’d need to do with history-based CAD,” House explained.

The design team is now using Solid Edge to build a large green dragon that breaths fire, lights up, and makes a loud rumbling sound. The team is also at work on a new show called Dinosaurs. 

“I won't tell you too much about it, but it’s going to be pretty awesome,” House said.

Though it may go without saying, House loves her job. “I love there’s always a way to create what’s in your mind. The challenge is figuring out how! That's what I enjoy about it most, I think,” she said.

Siemens has sponsored this post. They have had no editorial input to this post. All opinions are mine. —Jean Thilmany

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