Digital platforms to create LEGO models

Digital platforms to create LEGO models

There are various digital platforms to create LEGO models — each with its strengths and weaknesses. Here discuss the four most popular ones.

Introduction

LEGO brick building has come a long way since the first LEGO plastic bricks were introduced in 1962.  One of the most recent developments is the ability to build LEGO bricks digitally on a computer using 3D bricks. Computer software developers have expanded this functionality to be able to render these models into beautiful-looking 3D models and animations.

In this article, we look at the four most popular platforms for building digital LEGO brick models. They include BrickLink Studio 2.0, Mecabricks, LeoCAD, and LEGO Digital Designer (LDD). Most of them are available for multiple operating systems, but we will be looking at them from a Microsoft Windows perspective.

We will be looking at their strengths and weaknesses and as a bonus, at their compatibility with Blender. Other valuable resources for digital LEGO brick building will also be included at the end of this post.

BrickLink Studio 2.0

With a huge LEGO brick marketplace and the LEGO company themselves behind them, BrickLink Studio 2.0 (or simply Studio) is probably one of the more popular platforms available to create digital LEGO models. The software can be downloaded and installed on Windows or Mac operating systems.

BrickLink Studio 2.0 intro
An example of the BrickLink Studio front-end layout.

BrickLink Studio has a comprehensive parts list and is fairly easy to get into. BrickLink.com is also home to the collection of uploads from their large community.

Apart from creating digital LEGO models, the software can also be used to create step-by-step PDF building instructions or to make simple 3D renders of builds. The stability of builds can also be checked and the colours are verified to be available on their brick database. As with the other platforms, many third-party licensed themed designs are excluded.

BrickLink Studio 2.0 file formats

Design files that can be opened by Studio include Studio files (.io), MO files, LRD and MPD files, and LEGO Digital Designer (.lxf and .lxmfl) files. Only .io files can be saved, but the export list includes LDR/MPD, LEGO Digital Designer files (.lxf), POV-Ray, Collada files (.dae), and Sketch Fab files.

Part lists can also be exported as .XML (used by Bricklink) or Studio part list files.

Bricklink Studio and Blender

BrickLink Studio designs can be exported to Blender as Collada files (.dae). Materials are fundamental and toon-looking, but prints are exported as part of their objects.  Print colours also need to be set colours manually. The LEGO logos on studs are exported as separate objects.

The video above was rendered in Blender from a modified BrickLink Studio design.

Studio Collada imports need to be scaled x10 to compare with Mecabricks imports. Unfortunately, imports also need to be rotated on the global Z-axis and include some junk data objects which need to be removed before continuing with the Blender workflow.

Mecabricks Workshop

The Mecabricks Workshop is a free, comprehensive online platform to create digital LEGO models. Designing is done in the web browser, so no software is required. An account is required to be able to save and export models.

Mecabricks Workshop intro
An example of the Mecabricks Workshop front-end layout.

When compared with the other platforms, Mecabrick’s building interface is somewhat more difficult to get used to. On the plus side, the community section offers a large variety of pre-built models to view and build upon.

Mecabricks file formats

Mecabricks uses cloud storage to save builds. To be able to save a copy of the LEGO design locally on your hard drive, it can be exported as a Collada (.dae), Wavefront (.obj), or STL file. LEGO Digital Designer (.lxf and .lxfml) and LDraw (.ldr, .mpd, and .io) files can also be imported. This means that files from Studio and MPD files from the LDraw OMR (Official Model Repository) can be imported and built upon.

Mecabricks and Blender

Imported Collada files contain some colour information and work well with Blender. Wavefront and STL files can also be used, but lacks colour information and need to be set from scratch.

The video above was rendered in Blender from a modified Mecabricks Workshop design.

The best way to import digital LEGO models from Mecabricks to Blender is by using the Blender (.zmbx) export function. The Mecabricks Shop offers Export Import Mecabricks Lite as a free add-on for Blender to be able to import these files beautifully. A more advanced, paid-for version of the add-on is also available.

By using Blender Export, Import Add-on, prints are imported to Blender as PNG image filesas well. The LEGO logo on studs is linked to the main object instead of being separate.

LeoCAD

LeoCAD is a free and open-source downloadable 3D CAD program for creating virtual LEGO brick models. It is developed by Leonardo Zide and is one of three 3rd party editors to be used with the, probably most, extensive LEGO brick model collection of LDraw.

LeoCad intro
An example of the LeoCAD front-end layout.

The software is considered great for Windows and Linux, but is also available for macOS and is distributed under the GNU Public License v2. It can be downloaded and installed separately or as part of the LDraw AIOI – LDraw All-In-One-Installer.

Compared with Studio, the interface of LeoCAD needs to get used to but has extensive support for shortcut keys. The front end is intuitive and includes various features for even advanced users. A feature that stands out is the LeoCAD Minifigure Wizard.

LeoCAD file formats

LeoCAD can open and save models as .LDR, .dat and .MPD files. Models can be Exported to 3DStudioMax (.3DS), BrickLink (.xml), COLLADA (.dae), POV-Ray and Wavefront (.obj) files.

LeoCAD and Blender

LeoCAD Collada imports need to be scaled x1000 to compare with Mecabricks imports. Bick colours are available but use a simple Principle BSDF shader which makes materials look faded. Stud logos are imported as separate objects.

LEGO Digital Designer (LDD)

LEGO Digital Designer was a free software launched by the LEGO company in 2004. It has since been retired (2011), but the Windows 10 version (4.3.11) can still be downloaded for installation from third-party download sites such as Softonic. The software can only be run in offline mode.

LEGO Digital Designer intro
An example of the LEGO Digital Designer front-end layout.

LDD offers an extensive library of template objects, parts, shapes, and some rarer LEGO bricks. While building, the sound effects add an extra touch to the building experience but can be irritating for larger builds. This and its bright, intuitive interface makes LEGO Digital Designer enticing to the younger crowd to implement their ideas.

LEGO Digital Designer file formats

Designs can be opened and saved as LEGO Digital Designer files (.lxf) and, in addition to this, be exported/imported as .ldr files.

LEGO Digital Designer and Blender

Nothing specific, but files can be saved or exported into file formats that can be used by the other three LEGO designing programs.

Digital LEGO recourses

LDraw OMR library

The LDraw official model repository (OMR) is a comprehensive library of known LEGO sets that can be downloaded as MPD (.mpd) files.

MPD files can either be viewed using LDview (included in the LDraw All-in-One installer under the downloads section).

Conclusion

LEGO brick building has evolved significantly over the last couple of years. Digital platforms, such as BrickLink Studio 2.0, Mecabricks, LeoCAD, and LEGO Digital Designer (LDD) take LEGO brick building to a new level by giving users the ability to use most available bricks in digital designs. These designs can either be exported to Blender and other 3D software for rendering, PDF instruction sets or part lists.

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