The Lego connection

Aug. 1, 2008
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy which would be okay, I suppose, if Jack was a banker or actuary, but if he designs motion systems for a living,

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy — which would be okay, I suppose, if Jack was a banker or actuary, but if he designs motion systems for a living, it could be a real problem.

Motion is one of the most challenging disciplines within engineering. It's an art as well as a science; an exercise in creative thinking and analytical intelligence. Losing one's edge is not an option as design targets are becoming increasingly difficult to hit. Each new design must not only be better and less expensive, but also safer and more environmentally friendly. If Jack expects to compete in this unforgiving arena, he has to schedule some quality downtime, possibly with a good set of Legos.

For more than 50 years, Legos have inspired bright minds around the globe, and they'd do wonders for a guy like Jack. Although Legos were invented before I was born, I'm old enough to have had one of the early imported clay sets as a kid. The great thing about Legos is that they let you build almost anything, and then — like magic — rebuild it into almost anything else. This fluid-like property stems from the patented interlocking mechanism. Neat arrays tell of a modular connectivity that scales over many orders of magnitude.

I think even Jack, overworked as he is, would recognize this profound potential and wonder if it translates to real-world engineering. In fact, it does, in the form of interdisciplinary, or mechatronic, design. Like Legos, the mechatronic approach unlocks creativity and can support sustainable design. The magic, again, is in the connective element; in this case, software.

Before the advent of microprocessors, motion system components had two ways to connect: mechanically (through physical contact) and electrically (through an analog voltage or current). Now, with embedded intelligence and by-wire control, components can connect and communicate digitally as well. The implications are mind-boggling.

Where motion engineers were once limited to what they could express through component geometry and voltage or current values, they are now able to express more fluently in software. The laws of physics still have the final say, but being able to capture design intent in executable commands gives motion engineers much more say than ever before. Imagine that you're dealing with torque ripple caused by motor commutation. By correcting matters in software, you're essentially “telling” the motor what (not) to do each switching cycle.

In computer terminology, telling a machine what to do by modifying and concatenating software modules is called “scripting.” Building with Legos is not all that different; it's scripting in the physical domain, linking plastic blocks rather than lines of code. The concept is even implied in the name. Lego, a derivation of the Danish leg (play) and godt (good), means “to speak” in ancient Greek. The noun form, logos, meaning “word, thought, or command,” carries the point further, especially the notion of expressing design intent in the literal form of software.

Logos, not coincidentally, also implies logic and intelligence, two attributes of design that can be developed by playing with Legos. Interesting, too, is the historic belief that a higher intelligence created the universe through divine logos, “speaking” it into existence. The word universe, Latin for “single spoken sentence,” seems to agree. So does the word lego (play-godt) and the suggestion that playing (recreating) can make us better designers by sharpening our creative skills.

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