28 June 2020

LEGO® Element Design: Interview with Karsten Juel Bunch, Part 1 – the new shooter

In May we spoke with Karsten Juel Bunch who joined the LEGO Group in 2001 as an Element Designer and rose to become Design Director of the Element Design Team in 2016. He told us about the design process for complex elements, in particular the brand new shooter elements Brick 2X6X1 1/3 W/ Shooter (Element ID 6296378|Design ID 49743) and Arrow W/ 3.2 Shaft (6307940|46537).
This transcript has been edited for clarity, readability and narrative flow.




How many people work in Element Design overall, Karsten, and how does the department fit within the wider structure of the company?

Karsten:
There are 50 people at the moment, but we are making changes to our organisation. Right now, I am sitting in what is like a support organisation to the area that are developing all the novelty themes, so for instance LEGO® City and LEGO Star Wars, that we call the Project Groups. In the Project Groups they have all the designers who are building models: the Product Designers. So when a Product Designer or a Creative Lead wants to add something new, they can reach out to this support organisation that works more across [the Project Groups]. They apply for resources and then we go in and we give them the support that they need. So you can see that we work across a lot of different themes.


And what sort of resources do you provide?

Karsten:
In this organisation we have Graphic Designers and the Element Designers. And we also have people in building instructions, or product technology for instance, they're also sitting, like, in an outside organisation. So the organisation we have, some of the areas are very specialised. We have an area that is supporting, for instance, a lot of the play themes – so LEGO Star Wars, LEGO Super Heroes – and we have an area that's focused on preschool, and then we used to have an area as well that focused on the girls. We're actually trying to break this down at the moment because we don't like these ‘silos’. And we don't think that people should be locked in, you know, only being allowed to do your design for a certain specific area. So we want to break down the silos; some of the things I'm telling you now are no longer true from, like, Monday! It's one of the things that we will try as we want to be more task-focused and less organisation-focused.


And, where does your role fit within Element Design?

Karsten:
I am heading up a fourth design team. So the other design teams are making all the simpler stuff, more or less... okay, 80% of all the simple stuff is just something that they do in the other three design teams. And then when things get more complicated, or we're talking about building System development – like, do we need a new sub-group or main group of elements, for instance the rail systems or maybe slopes? – then they call in my team; we're called the Platform Team. We would step in and be the ones that would help.


What sort of stuff do they come to you with?

Karsten:
You know often they're asking for one element, but we will actually design all the other elements that are required and then think potentially, what would they need in the future? Do we need another connector on this element? And then we're going to come up with a lot of scenarios, and then based on those scenarios, we're going to decide the direction we're going. So sometimes when you [New Elementary] are asking in your reviews, "How did they come up with this, ah, we can see it's compatible here!... How?" And that's because we are very thorough in everything that we do and with all the measurements, making sure that everything links in, and backwards compatibility if that's something we can do.


Okay, so the designer might come to you and say we want this one element to do this one thing but you guys say well, no, there's got to be the whole family, and we’ve got to think of all the potential things that might happen in future, and consider all the elements that already exist that this might need to be compatible with?

Karsten:
Yep. For instance, a story I've told before is; a few years ago we did the whole rail system for the rollercoaster. That one was [intended to be] a 'bash-and-slash' plate... they wanted two nights jousting, like, one firing rail and another firing rail and then, 'kaboom'! And we started doing concept development on this. So it was Nexo Knights that came up with the idea, but we would then go to say someone from Creator Expert and ask them, "what is it that you could do with something like this, how would you like to see this system being developed?" And then we get all of these different inputs, and then based on that we then go back to Nexo Knights and say, "ahh – we actually propose to do this instead". And then we can have other people using the elements, and then we get better business on it, and everybody's happy.


Did that element ever get used for the Nexo Knights jousting?

Karsten:
No. Because it's conceptual work you know, and then we try to enable a type of play. So it might come now we have the system that can do it. So let's see.


Can you break down the phases of that process a bit more, from an idea coming to your department until the point where it leaves your department and goes into production?

Karsten:
In our Planning phase someone is coming to us with an idea and we might go, like, "maybe we should do something different… say, something that's farm-related". Then we come back with, “okay we actually want to change this". It's then that we go into the Exploration phase, where we just open up everything. This is a very circular process. Now, the element can be anything: from a cow to a tractor to a horse. Then comes the Selection: we take some decisions and say, "this is the thing we think we should end up with". Then we are in Concept stage. By now we know it's going to be a tractor – but it could be done in different ways, and so we make like an A, a B and a C version of it. And then at some point we're going to say something like, "okay so this is going to be a blue tractor" and we can kick off the Design for Manufacturing stage. That means we now have like one ‘funnel’ [design direction] that we put things into, until we are at the Design Freeze.


What is Design Freeze?

Karsten:
So, Design Freeze is when the Engineers are sitting behind the steering wheel; they're the ones now making sure that this is delivered in the end. I wanted to give an example: the recent thing that we did. You know this element? Well it's been on the market for 20 years at least, I think. I can't remember when it was launched but we're talking before 2000 I guess.

Release Housing 6X2X2, Ass. (Design ID 32074) and the accompanying Arrow 8M W/Soft Upper P. (32080, 32133) were introduced in 1998 Technic sets. Other variants have since appeared, of which the 2006 versions (housing 57029 / arrow 57028) have been in use right up to 2019. Element images © 1998, 2006 The LEGO Group

Karsten:
So this is one of the elements that came in [to our department]. They wanted to make a change to the shooter in Production, to change the way that this was created; the set-up production-wise. Then they asked us if we would help them with optimising it and making it more simple or handleable during production. We went back to the Design organisation. We have this forum where we can go in and talk to the model designers. We asked them, "are you happy with this design?" and they all said, like, "ah, this is only used in very few models that include Technic; we would love this one to be in the LEGO platform instead." So we started doing some conceptual work.


What form did that conceptual work take?

Karsten:
Well you know, of course, we also have this [Spring Shooter 1X4 (15400) introduced in 2014] which is highly appreciated... but the two are not really compatible, right? They're different. Of course, that is also a big value – that they're different. So we have this large cannon [Arrow 8M], and it can make an impact – when you shoot this one at a model, you know something is going to break off, right? That's key for this one. And then you have this [Spring Shooter 1X4] here, this is used very much in a lot of different models. It's something that you can see; it’s very visible, it's like a missile thingy. That's like the 'medium' category. And then of course you have the 'small' category [Mini Shooter With Ø3.2 Shaft (15391), also introduced in 2014] which is hand-held. This is just like, 'ping!', nothing, right? Nothing really happens. So we wanted to do something with the large category.

Element images © 2014 The LEGO Group

How did the prototypes develop?

Karsten:
Some of the first kinds of models we did were just taking completely the same functionality as you have in the Technic one, but now with the knobs and tubes. This is one of the first concept models that we did to start up an exploration:

In background, the 2006 Technic shooter. In foreground, prototype #1 of the new shooter. Image & copy; 2020 The LEGO Group

Karsten:

So in this Exploration phase we did everything that we could with shooters; we mapped everything out. Then we started talking about the way of doing the trigger. This [large category] is a very complicated trigger, right? It has many parts in it, it needs to be assembled. Whereas this [medium category] is very simple. It doesn't even have a trigger; the trigger is actually the arrow itself. And so we actually made some prototypes using this setup and we tried, with kids, to build it into models. But when we're at this larger size here we just found that this big part of the arrow sticking out at the rear end makes it very difficult to build into models. You need to have a lot of open space. So that's why at one point someone said, "well, we do have an amazing trigger in some of our technology products. Why don't we make it compatible with this family instead?"


Like the one used in the light brick?

Images © 2007, 2008 The LEGO Group
Karsten:
Yeah, or the sound brick. And we decided on moving ahead with this trigger. So, you see, it's this whole iterative thing that we do; we don't really know what the target is. And then once we make a decision on what we're going to do, then of course we take different tracks.


What are the various ‘tracks’ involved in the case of the shooter’s development?

Karsten:
For a long time at the beginning we had two different things we were exploring: with the cross-hole or without the cross-hole, because the cross-hole made a lot of issues with the functionality of the trigger. You can see there in the design, we put a hole in right where all the function is sitting. So we made it really difficult for the engineers. They did it! But it was a very high risk in the beginning, whether we could actually do this or not.

Image ©2020 The LEGO Group

Why was it so important to have?

Karsten:
We wanted a cross-hole in there because it gives the functionality for a mech: you could put it on the shoulder and you can make it go up and down. So the model designers were very keen on getting this.


How did you mitigate that risk, to get the cross-hole in?

Karsten:
We had, I think, two different streams, just to get the cross-hole in – two engineers competing to try and find the right way of solving this. In the end, we get to the point where we make a selection after all the testing and say, "this is it, this is what we're going to do – all agreed? Yes? Let’s go." And then we matured it.


Image ©2006 The LEGO Group
Then of course there is also a new arrow to go with it?

Karsten:
Yes, it was Marinus [Jasperse, Senior Designer] that designed it, he fought hard to make this element possible. This [arrow 57028 from 2006] was the starting point. We did a lot of analysis of this [rubber tip of the arrow]: why does it actually have flexibility in it? So we locked that [flexibility off], and tried out some safety tests. And we actually found out it makes no difference that it can actually give a little bit. So that's why we have ended up with an arrow that doesn't have this flexibility.

You have many versions here!

Karsten:
We tried different surfaces, how small can it actually be, does it need to be round… we tried different designs, also, of course.

Image ©2020 The LEGO Group

Karsten:

This one here has a hand grenade shape!

Image ©2020 The LEGO Group

Karsten:
So we tried to add some fun design, you know... can we put fins on it? This one is weighed, and is one of the ones we then began testing in the studio.

Image ©2020 The LEGO Group

How did you test them?

Karsten:
We just shoot straight up. We put [marking] tape on a wall. So we know it weighs 2.89 grams, and if we get up to say this height, we have this many joules. We have someone that tells us, you cannot go above this amount of joules. And then we just try and try and try different springs, different designs. In the end, you know, the designer was sitting down in the testing studio just cutting into the arrow, just to make sure that it actually lives up to the specifications!

Images ©2020 The LEGO Group

What other tests did you do?

Karsten:
This is one of the tests; here you see the arrow shooting and you can actually see how it tumbles in the air. But then when it hits, it actually hits with the sharp point, which is really bad.

Image ©2020 The LEGO Group

Karsten:
Back to the drawing table! Make a new version of it, trial and error, trial and error. Sometimes we get some results where we don't understand what happens here, and so we actually develop new ways of testing.

Image ©2020 The LEGO Group

Karsten:
You can see one of the machines here, which measures speed. It's one of the new machines we got installed during the development of this arrow.

Image ©2020 The LEGO Group

Does somebody build each machine specifically for your needs?

Karsten:
We have a department who's making tests. You know, we're doing all this hacking and slashing here in the design team, but then we hand it over to someone else that verify that whatever we're saying is right! And they, you know, they're the ones with the lab coats. They bring it into a laboratory and then they're tested and tested and tested, otherwise we won't get this through [approvals]. And they're sitting right below where we're sitting so it's really easy for us just to go down the stairs and talk with them.


That's incredible. So, how long does this whole process take for an element such as this?

Karsten:
In this case, because we had some scrum work in the beginning to decide if we have the task or not, I think we worked for like half a year to figure out what we wanted to do and if we wanted to do it. Because we didn't have someone give us the brief; we were actually the ones that came up with the brief. And then the Concept phase, the whole maturing, hacking and slashing; making sure that the arrow's flying the right way and finding the right spring, making sure that the production method – the way that we are going to produce it – that we can handle it… that took a long time in a project like this because we have so many departments that need to work together on it.


And how often would a project like this – something coming from your own brief, that requires this level of dedication – come along for your department?

Karsten:
We, we try to come up with something on a regular basis. I'm giving my team 20% of their time to do this kind of work so that these kinds of ideas will ‘bubble up’ from below, and not down from the top.


What would you say the rest of the other 80% of their time is spent doing?

Karsten:
That's delivering on tasks that we have briefed on, but it can of course be a task that they have been a part of creating.


Image ©2020 The LEGO Group
The completed shooter elements Brick 2X6X1 1/3 W/ Shooter (6296378|49743) and Arrow W/ 3.2 Shaft (6307940|46537) are already available in three sets: LEGO Ninjago 71703 Storm Fighter Battle, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 76151 Venomosaurus Ambush and 76153 Avengers Helicarrier. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases. Amazon USA: Amazon.com Canada: Amazon.ca UK: Amazon.co.uk Deutschland: Amazon.de

Image ©2020 The LEGO Group


Our thanks to Karsten and the AFOLET department for providing this interview. Help New Elementary keep publishing articles like this. Become a Patron!

Massive thanks go to our 'Vibrant Coral' patrons: Iain Adams, Andy Price, Anthony Wright, Geppy, Chris Cook, London AFOLs, Gerald Lasser, Big B Bricks, Dave Schefcik, David and Breda Fennell, Huw Millington, Neil Crosby, Antonio Serra, Beyond the Brick, Sue Ann Barber & Trevor Clark, and Kevin Gascoigne. You're awesome!

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4 comments:

  1. Great article!

    The anecdote about the roller coaster track starting as a concept for Nexo Knights is interesting. I always wished they had made a tournament/joust set for that like they had for Knights Kingdom, considering how the Knighton Colosseum was one of the first scenes shown in the TV series and as such a climactic battle there would be a great way story-wise to bring things "full circle". A jousting set with those tracks still feels like an interesting idea, which I might try to incorporate into a MOC at some point.

    There's still some aspects of this new spring ammo I'm curious about. Most notably, why is there an extended plastic section between the launcher and the ammo tip? It reminds me a little of the extended section on the Ninjago "Dragon Masters" fliers, which was used to mount a film wing element that they could "glide" with—I'm curious if that sort of idea might have been factored into the design of this (though I suppose the designer couldn't answer that because if it were it would necessarily be related to future, unreleased sets).

    Nonetheless, I do appreciate the newer System compatibility of this spring shooter. The older version's Technic compatibility felt largely like an artifact of its use in Competition/Cyber-Slam, and for the most part it had been used largely in System themes since the redesign. Normally I'm all for Technic integration on shooters as a Bionicle fan, but in this case I can certainly understand why they would prefer something more in line with smaller System shooter elements.

    The point about this type of shooter's continued relevance is good as well—the smaller shooters are flashy but less effective for activating a function or target.

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  2. Very interesting article. Growing up I was always really fascinated by all of Lego's various blasters, so getting a feel for how much work goes into perfecting them is really neat. I'm tempted to pick up the new mindstorms just to make little turrets and tanks and such :D

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  3. I would have had a (unrelated to spring shooters) question to the design team: how come that some new elements look so "out" of the Lego system?
    Generally those are minifig accessories from blind bags, that look like produced AND designed in china, and are merely "just" toy accessories with the very minimal amount of connectivity, that is, just a bar-sized handle, and nothing else.

    ..but I have a specific part in mind that doesn't come from a blind bag: part 52494, "robot head". How did a part that looks so similar to binoculars (which are themselves badly designed [they don't hold well at all onto studs, and are slightly too thick to be sandwiched between plates] - but I get it because they're rather old), don't actually have bar-sized holes like the binoculars?
    To me, it looks like miscommunication in the design team, like someone designed it on the paper, expecting the part to be just like binoculars, but "mounted" on a stud and usable as a robot head, and then the idea got passed to a new guy in the design team who had no idea that binoculars existed, and that the holes were supposed to be bar-sized.
    Am I wrong?
    (and how come that basic parts like binoculars, which may not be that popular in sets but are used a lot by MOCers, still haven't been "fixed"? Pretty sure we could nowadays get a part that is exactly one plate thick and hold well onto studs)

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  4. I think I've figured out which team I'd want to work for if I ever get a job with TLG.

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