Sunday, 1 December 2013

New legends

How does one connect LEGO® parts? The classic 'stud and tube' design is the obvious answer but of course it's not the only technique. A myriad of 'connectors' have been introduced over the decades such as clips and bars, Technic snaps, various hinges - to name just a few - and in 2014 another kind is coming;  a new style of ball and cup connector. We first learnt of these in July this year when the new theme Mixels was announced and immediately caused a sensation - as these new joints have strong friction, so can be positioned at a wide range of angles. I've been dying to get my hands on them, but Mixels is not due out until March. It turns out these new parts will actually first appear in the new Chima sub-theme, Legend Beasts, which are due for a January release but are already available in many countries. The kind folk at LEGO's Community and Events Engagement Team have sent New Elementary two of the Legend Beast sets in advance of this official release so I'm rather grateful to them and rather excited to be able to tell you all about the contents!




For such small sets (about 110 pieces) there's quite a bit to say, so today I'm focusing exclusively on the new ball and cup connectors and will discuss the sets (which have yet more new elements!) in more detail in a separate post very soon. Before we examine them in detail, let's quickly look at their history.

The most obvious predecessors to the new connectors appeared in 1970; the old-style ball and cup connectors (pictured here in red), more commonly known as 'towballs and sockets' within the community. A few variants of the ball and cup shapes have appeared over the decades, some of which you'll see later in this post. But common to all of these was that once the ball clicked into the cup it sat only loosely inside.

The new ball and cup connectors also share much in common with Constraction joints, also pictured here, including the shape of the cup. Although those are much larger - 10.2mm diameter balls - they have the advantages of strong friction and allowing a wide range of movement, making them perfect for building poseable figures.

The new ball and cup connectors take the best of both - they're small and they have friction. So, here they are:


These are the three designs of ball/cup connectors in the two sets I received. One is a ball connector in Dark Bluish Gray [BL]/Dark Stone Grey [TLG] and has been given the honour of being pictured on one side of the box, in the usual callout that shows an element at 1:1 scale. What an appropriate choice. It's a 1X2 plate and the shaft connecting the ball is centred on the long edge. (Element ID 6039479 | Design ID 14417.) The other two are cup connectors in Light Bluish Gray [BL]/Medium Stone Grey [TLG] and again both are 1X2 plates; one with the cup centred on the long edge (Element ID 6043656 | Design ID 14704) and the other with the cup on the short edge (Element ID 6043639 | Design ID 14418). The studs are all recessed, which adds further flexibility to building such as permitting offset. The cup itself is smaller than earlier incarnations; it's just a little shy of two plates high and you can achieve some pretty effects just playing with several cup elements - i.e. using them decoratively. Quantities are excellent for such small sets; 70126 Crocodile Legend Beast has five each of parts 14417 and 14418 (no 14704s though), but 70127 Wolf Legend Beast wins with a whopping nine 14417, four 14418 and five 14704! There are another three Legend Beast sets in the series and judging by the box art, the Lion looks as equally bountiful as the Wolf. More element designs are to come too; the Gorilla features a 1X2 plate with a ball at one end and a cup at the other, which you can also spot in the Mixels set shown at the top of this post.

When connected, the range of movement is extremely wide, as my dodgy little animation shows. 'Up' and 'down' movements allow a 90° turn - in fact, a little more than that. 'Left' and 'right' is a little more limited, less than 45°, but with a little SNOT I imagine you can achieve any angle you desire.  Comparing the range of movement to Constraction joints, they seem nearly identical; I think Constraction may be a smidgen greater. It is clear that clever design has taken place to achieve a balance between range of movement whilst keeping the connection (and the part itself) strong. LEGO Designer Mark Stafford has mentioned that these new connectors have been in development for an astonishing six years, which gives you an inkling of the dedication and importance the company puts into part design. TLG have stiff competition nowadays, so this attention to quality is critical. It's also worth remembering that whilst they didn't invent interlocking bricks, a major reason for the success of the original LEGO brick in the '50s was the quality of the connection provided by the stud and tube design.

I suspect most of the excitement about these new connectors is coming from mecha builders. It will allow them to build much smaller mecha - and for those that are already building small, it will allow greater movement, poseability and strength. But of course the applications are much wider; as the Legend Beast sets prove you can make any kind of poseable figure with them, which will make them very interesting for the many LEGO stop-motion animators out there. There's no need to limit ourselves to figures though - they'd be useful for parts of a spaceship or in modern architecture. They're kind of liberating to play with - it also feels just a little bit naughty. Like new worlds of possibilities are opening up, more than should really be allowed with LEGO. Even though in functional terms the Constraction joints have offered poseability for many years, these new plate-sized versions feel so much more useful and 'in System'.

So that's the new ball and cup. But there's another whole side to this story, a very exciting one. If you put a new ball into an old cup, there's no appreciable difference... it's that same old loose connection. But if you put an old ball into a new cup, it has strong friction! This suggests that the design changes made to the ball have deliberately been kept minimal and that it is the new cup that does all the exciting work of making a strong friction connection. This deduction is borne out by simply looking at the parts, as shown here. The old and new cups are clearly very different but by contrast, the old and new balls look pretty similar.

So why am I so excited by the old ball/new cup combination? It means that every part ever released by LEGO containing a ball connector can now be joined to the new cup and have strong friction. There are many interesting elements with ball connectors! I'm not going to list them all (perhaps you folks will enjoy mentioning them in the comments instead?) but two very exciting ones are these Technic parts, 2736 and 6628. Imagine the possibilities now that you will be able to set these at any angle in a joint!

Another interesting one is no longer in production; part 3614, the maxifig hand. If you're unfamiliar with maxifigs, well I would love to tell you all about them but this post is long enough as is! Instead I'll just quickly explain they were a '70s figure released by LEGO before the advent of the minifig, and I recommend you read Dr Dave's post about maxifigs over on his excellent blog, Gimme LEGO. As you see here, a maxifig hand is essentially a ball on a 1X1 hollow-studded round plate. Being that small and having a hole through it, this part offers us some extra possibilities. They are easy and cheap to buy on secondary market sites like BrickLink and Brick Owl. Wouldn't it be wonderful if TLG brought it out of retirement? That's not unprecedented - it did make a reappearance in the '90s and was included in sets as recently as 2004; it was not used for maxifigs in these instances.

The final one I'll mention is this part 30395. If you ignore the actual hooked section, it's that most desirable of SNOT pieces; a plate with a stud on both sides. It's like the clip light, but with a ball instead of a plate, or like a maxifig hand with studs on both sides. So if you can cover up the hooked section in your build, this is pretty neat. This part is still in production, and I suspect it will be updated in due course with the minor changes to the ball and shaft that seem to hold it in better. Many existing parts that use the ball connector are still in production, and some if not all of these will get remoulded at some point in the coming years to bring them in line. Here are some parts that might be slated for change...

In fact, the one shown on the right in Reddish Brown has already been redesigned and has been appearing in sets for a few months now, in Light Bluish Gray and Black. The new version (15456) has a hole, like Technic plates, and of course the minor tweaks to the ball and shaft. The length of the shaft has been kept the same, which is good, as it is longer than the shaft of the new 1X2 plate with ball thus offering us some alternate configurations in building. Note that the studs haven't been recessed.


You can see clearly in the Light Bluish Gray element above how the new ball is a little different; there's a tiny recess where the shaft connects to the ball. This feature seems to be what holds the part in place when you connect it to a cup and push it to an extremity. The old-style ball connectors, with their tapered shape, slip out of the cup at this point. [EDIT Jan 2014: I'm possibly incorrect about the benefit of the recess, as it has been noted that there are versions of the same ball joint parts that have and do not have the recess. Thanks to Philo at LDraw for bringing this to my attention.]

As I said, I'll be examining the two Legend Beast sets in more detail very soon, but for now, just think of all the fun you can have with a ball and a cup.

35 comments:

  1. Hmm, I wonder if these will be key in the designers making the Exo-Suit work to TLC's satisfaction?

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    1. That comment reads like a caption to your profile pic.

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  2. i hope that's part of the reason they're making them. Should make for a fantastic set.

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  3. Thanks, Tim, both for the info on the new ball and socket elements and also for the history lesson on older similar parts. As I discovered while building LEGO's Set 4508 Titan XP some of the older joints struggle to provide sufficient friction to reliably pose allow anything but the smallest models, so I'm delighted to hear about the increased friction provided by the new elements.

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    1. Meant to say to you yesterday... I finally got a 4508. OK condition and great price! Thanks for the heads-up on that rich seam of rare! Although maybe I could have found all the parts yesterday in new condition... ;O)

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    2. You're welcome ! Cool looking model IMHO with a ton of rare elements, but good luck posing it without the whole thing coming crashing down....

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    3. I have my Titan XP on a shelf leaning against the back wall, made the mistake of trying to pose him out in the open

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  4. http://fav.me/d6wc3zi Hey there Caper. First off I'd just like to say that I signal blasted this to my DA followers, and I added a bit of my own personal take on the news.

    I think you kinda left out how this bodes well to "Constraction" MOCers to. We're already the masters of working with friction ball joints. So I think this has even more potential in our arena. We've been resorting to bar and clip elements for small articulations for years now. To finally have a mini version of what we're already using is a big flippin' deal. I can't wait to get my hands on some of these and well...make some hands. LOL Articulated hands is one of the hardest things to pull off well in Bionicle/HF MOCing and to do it compactly means limitations on the articulation because of having tor resort to bar and clip system. I'm very hopeful we see this new system implemented in more technic Constraction friendly elements soon. Would have been amazing if the new Hero Factory Minifigs used this new method. Maybe next year?

    Thanks so much for the review/news Caper. This, as I said in my journal is a game changer.

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  5. I've been greatly anticipating these pieces! Another potential use for these that you didn't elaborate on much is simply as an angle connector that can be angled along three planes, just like the larger constraction joint. Consider how these could be used, for instance, to form the window frame of a large-scale automobile (like this MOC by the Arvo brothers: http://www.brickshelf.com/gallery/arvo/Legodreams/FordGTLemans/fordgt_lemans_01.jpg).

    Out of curiosity, are you planning to make another post about some of the other new elements from these sets, such as the new claw and tooth plates?

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    1. Yeah I didn't elaborate on that much - kinda felt like there's infinite potential for this part so not much to say in that respect! Superb car.

      Yes, as mentioned I'll be posting again about the rest of these sets.

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  6. Like Andrew, I'm very excited about the possibilities of these joints. Seeing them in the Mixels was amazing enough, but the Legend Beasts really demonstrate how effective these can be for articulated brick-sculptures. I've heard a lot of criticisms of the Legend Beasts, but one thing's for sure — organic creatures at this scale would not have been nearly as feasible ten years ago, when there were fewer small detail elements like the 1x2 bow, the two styles of 1x2-1x2 bracket, and these new joints.

    I ought to mention some of the other new ball joint pieces that are in some of the other Legend Beast and Mixels sets. 70124 Eagle Legend Beast, 70125 Gorilla Legend Beast, and 41504 Seismo each have a 1x2 plate with a ball cup on one end and a ball joint on the other.

    Another feature of these new joints that has not been fully addressed — unlike click hinges or clip-and-handle hinges, the ball cups and ball joints here are fully in line with the center of each plate, making these potentially useful for stud inversions. Of course, the same could be said of the previous towball pieces.

    And on a second note that is probably less relevant to a lot of builders, the fact that some of these parts have two hollow studs in a row means that there are a lot of Hero Factory parts with two pins that you could attach to them. Since I do a lot of constraction building, I've encountered many instances where pieces like this might be useful, but there have not been a lot of them in recent sets — the most notable ones are probably the old "finger hinges".

    Overall, I can't wait to pick up some of these Legend Beast sets! I'll probably start with 70123 Lion Legend Beast or 70127 Wolf Legend Beast since those seem to have the new joints in the greatest quantities, and I really like the designs of both of them. But they all seem to be high-quality designs in their own right, and are an excellent way to debut these new elements.

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    1. It's a good point about inversion, yet another way to do it... and crucially, one that is simple for small kids to grasp conceptually (and literally!)

      I did reference that double-ended part btw :O)

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  7. I guess they'll also work with other Technic parts with similar balls, like the new ones in the snowmobile: http://www.flickr.com/photos/92090133@N04/11114543423/

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    1. O wow, o wow. I'd heard those 3L axle/pin connectors were coming - first pic I've seen though! Now that's the kind of Technic that should be getting coverage on New Elementary ;O)

      But re the part you mention (the tri-ball?) they certainly look the right size, would be odd for them not to work. In fact given they're a new part, perhaps they already have the new ball and shaft?

      I need me a snowspeeder or two...

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  8. Cool animation! :-) I love your articles!

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    1. Cheers! It was very last minute. Hence the wobbles and the flickering (realised part-way through I hadn't set the shutter to manual, grrr!) I'll do better next time...

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  9. These small ball joints look a lot like something Kre-O has been using for a number of years. Lego copying clones?

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    1. Not familiar with the Kreo parts you mention or when they were introduced, but given these new LEGO joints are essentially the design of Constraction joints (from the late 1990s I think) scaled down to the size of the towball that LEGO has produced since 1970, you could possibly argue it the other way around ;O)

      Not saying it's beneath LEGO to keep beady eyes on their competitors though. And of course, the original bricks LEGO made were copies!

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    2. Perhaps, but TLG is doing it better.

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  10. Slight error in one of your photos Tim. On the one where you show the new elements face on, you've done the bottom of the tow ball part twice - I presume you meant the top row to be the top of each element.

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    1. Fixed - cheers Lee. Now to get some clearly-required sleep :OD

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  11. These parts are also in the new Emerald Express train from Creator. I don't see it ever being used on full-size trains though, since the friction would make rounding the curves more difficult.

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    1. Really? I only see the already-available "loose" towball pieces in the inventory from that set's instruction booklet. (15456 and 63082).

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  12. I sat here mesmerized by that gif for a full minute.

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  13. Your blog content is consistently excellent. I am glad to see a blogger focused on the noble brick and the System's approach that Lego employs...

    I recently explored some of the idiosyncrasies of the Lego brick design in a recent post on my blog where I dissect the Lego system, redesigned it a bit, and printed samples of my redesigned bricks on a 3d printer. Link: http://tomalphin.com/2013/11/lego-challenge-25-redesigning-lego-bricks-tomblox.html

    (I later learned that my redesigned brick is nearly identical to the Modulex design. (great minds think alike?)

    As for your blog, I would like to suggest a couple cool topics that are totally aligned with your blog's focus:
    1) A primer on the Modulex system, it's variations from the Lego design, and it's unique parts. (super interesting and rarely covered in any detail by Lego bloggers.)
    2) A deeper dive into the brick - Similar to my blogpost it would be useful to your readers to show the many interesting ratios within the Lego brick - much more than just the well known 5 to 6 ratio of height and width. I personally defined my own unit of 1/5th the width of a 1x1 brick, but I know that the LDraw system uses LDU which is 1/20th instead.

    I would be happy to collaborate on such an article, since as an engineer, the proportions are a very interesting part of the Lego system.

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    1. Thanks Tom, and I enjoyed reading your articles. (Actually I was the one who alerted you to Modulex! Have you bought any yet?) An article on Modulex has always been floating on my to-do list, I guess something will surface one day. Right now, there's too many new sets to explore! Sorry I haven't had time to reply to your email, it's been a bit nuts of late.

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    2. I hadn't realized that was you who made me aware of Modulex... Thanks again!

      No, I haven't been able to acquire any yet - they seem to be extremely rare in North America, I don't want to pay for international shipping to get some... :-)

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    3. That's a shame. Keep an eye on eBay, if you're not already. Something will turn up eventually!

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  14. The comments on this blog are as interesting as the original article. Tom, I enjoyed reading your redesign-the-brick post, and will now catch up with the other Lego Challenges you set yourself.

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    1. Agreed Rich, people sometimes call me a parts expert but the real ones are the readers here!

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  16. Mark Stafford (LEGO Designer) may be right that LEGO first started looking into these parts six years ago, but the actual product development with the design resembling the final product, started much later in a seperate project. The parts have been tested much more than we usually do with new parts, making sure that the quality from running production is as required. Though development started much earlier than for other new 2014 parts.
    Erland, Part Design

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    1. I think you're probably right, Erland - Mark perhaps said 'talked about' rather than 'in development'! Anyway, it does sound like these parts received more attention than usual right through the entire process, which is befitting for such a radical new family.

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