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Lego Mindstorms: What Went Wrong? 278

Posted by Hemos
from the at-least-they-aren't-stolen dept.
latif writes "In recent years, Lego Mindstorms has generated more media buzz for Lego than all of its other product lines combined, but surprisingly, Mindstorms seem to be out of favor at Lego. The Mindstorms line has been cut down to a single set and Lego is not interested in marketing even that set. Lego has been in a lot of financial trouble in recent times and its neglect of a product line with solid sales potential might seem odd but this is not so. I have done an analysis of Lego's Mindstorms options and my analysis indicates that Lego has solid economic reasons for backing away from the Mindstorms line."
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Lego Mindstorms: What Went Wrong?

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  • by freeweed (309734) on Monday November 28, 2005 @12:57AM (#14126714)
    Go back to the basics. Hell, just go back to Space Police, Blacktron, Castle, and Forest legos.

    It's funny to see comments like this. When I was growing up, the original Space sets were just coming out. My older brothers complained that Lego was making far too many specialized pieces in order to help you construct their pre-prepared models.

    Plus ca change...
  • why I lost interest (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Scudsucker (17617) on Monday November 28, 2005 @01:01AM (#14126730) Homepage Journal
    I lost interest in Lego before Mindstorms, because all the sets I wanted - like the Model Team line or the high end Technics - cost over $200. They might have more sucess if they had the more popular models in stores and moved the higher end stuff to mail order status to reduce inventory and price. Instead of getting a phancy box with packs of individual parts, you get an instruction book in a plain box with a bunch of parts in zip lock baggies.
  • This is a sin (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Newer Guy (520108) on Monday November 28, 2005 @01:03AM (#14126740)
    I teach robotics with Lego products. Kids from three through High School love them! They even have First Lego League, where kids (and adults)compete by building robots to solve problems. Where are the next generation of engineers going to come from if American companies "greed out" all the opportunities to attract young people?

    I heard that in 2004, American colleges graduated but 40,000 engineers while Pacific Rim ones graduated 450,000. Not only that, when you consider that 1/3 to 1/2 of American students are actually forigners, the picture looks even bleaker!

    This is sad and pathetic! America needs a reality check lest we become an Engineering third world country!
  • $200 (Score:2, Interesting)

    by rickliner (263200) on Monday November 28, 2005 @01:04AM (#14126744) Homepage
    What went wrong is they charge $200 for a toy. That's the only reason I don't have one.

    Yeah, you can find some on ebay for less, but who's counting those 718 parts?

    Over at legoeducation.com you can find school-oriented Mindstorms kits, and you can also buy each of the most expensive parts (RCX, sensors, motors) individually.
  • by sage2k6 (784361) on Monday November 28, 2005 @01:10AM (#14126785) Homepage
    My favorite Lego sets have always been the Kinetics set (the ones with the gears and pullies and blocks with holes). Those would've been so much more fun if I had a Mindstorm set...

    When I look at Mindstorm, it's anyone's first step into programmable machines and robotics. It's actually how they teach some Mechanical Engineering and Systems Design Courses at school. It's an extremely versitile tool for learning. The Science/Engineering summer camp that the faculty runs, some age groups have extensive portions of the week focused on Mindstorms, and the kids loves it.

    I admit that there may not be too much profit to marketing the set commercially, but to give it up entirely, I think a lot of benefits would be lost.
  • Lego Has Problem (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MBCook (132727) <foobarsoft@foobarsoft.com> on Monday November 28, 2005 @01:16AM (#14126816) Homepage
    I loved Legos as a kid. I still do. But there aren't many general sets. I love building the large models (especially the large Technic models) but there are basically none of those today. If I want to build a large set, my choice is basically a giant Yoda or a star destroyer. Both costing $100-$150. There don't seem to be any general sets any more (not that I've looked hard). When I was little I got a Technic set that I loved. It came with hundreds of pieces and an instruction book full of like 30+ models you could make (simple things: mixing machine, little car that steers, etc). Going through all those things gave you lots of ideas to make your own stuff.

    But let's talk about Mindstorms. I bought one when they first came out. They cost $200. That is a lot of money for a kid's toy (you can buy a Nintendo DS and two games for that). You can only program them with the Lego Mindstorms software which I found annoying and limited (I soon found the free C complier for it on the internet). I don't even think it would work with my Mac that I have today.

    What kind of sensors did you get? As I remember you got.. 2 touch sensors. Or was it 3. And two motors. They offered rotational sensors (cost extra), a vision system (costs a TON extra), etc. I just spent $200 on a Lego set (that didn't include enough pieces, if you ask me), I'm NOT going to go buy a $50-$100 camera for it (I don't know what it costs, wasn't available when I bought it).

    I think that was the last Lego set I bought. I used to love Lego. But there isn't anything like it today that I know of. Legos aren't the same. I remember building house kits, airplanes kits, a moon base with a monorail, the trains, and all sorts of other stuff. Today they seem to license half their product lines and there is almost nothing "normal" like I remember.

    Maybe Megablocks or one of the other "rip-offs" is better. I don't know. I never looked. But Lego priced themselves out of my market. A quick check on Amazon shows the set is still $200. What can I buy for $200 bucks? Let's look at some of the things I've been looking at lately. I can buy a little stirling engine [stirlingengine.co.uk] that will run off sunlight or the heat of my had for $140. Or for the same amount, I can buy a Steam Engine [ministeam.com] kit. A working kit that includes a whistle, governor, and more. Both of those leave me with $60 to spend (a video game, perhaps?).

    The older I got, the fewer Lego products I got as gifts for Christmas and such. While there were things I wanted, they just got more expensive. About the only models I remember wanting to build since I was maybe 10 or 12 (I'm currently 22) cost $100-$200.

    Between the proliferation of video games, other electronic gadgets, and issues like I mentioned above, I think Lego will be a gonner soon. My parents had a hell of a time finding me an Erector set when I was a kid. I don't know if that has changed, but between that and Lego, what is there for kids to build things with these days?

  • by mwyner (65962) on Monday November 28, 2005 @01:25AM (#14126862)
    In a computer class I taught to middle school kids last year, I was the lucky recipient of a grant to outfit the whole class (7 groups worth of kids) with Mindstorms. I spent a semester teaching them not only the basics of Mindstorms, but how to program, how to debug, how to test, and all the other basics for computer programming. They had a blast doing the different projects, and I've never seen these kids so engaged before. Several of them actually wanted to come in after school and work on their robots which is unheard of. This is sad if Lego is cutting back on that and all but phasing it out.
  • Re:Said it before (Score:2, Interesting)

    by TemporalBeing (803363) <bm_witnessNO@SPAMyahoo.com> on Monday November 28, 2005 @01:45AM (#14126956) Homepage Journal
    No, specialized bricks are not killing Lego. Personally, I would enjoy getting more of them, but as many others have pointed out - they are just too expensive. I love legos, and would (and am planning on it when I can afford to) buy a ton of them. I plan on having them around for my kids b/c they are great for the imagination, and such - but I'm not going to spend a ton of money on sets that don't have a lot of legos in them.

    I've seen several sets recently that I've been tempted to buy, but then I look at the brick count and am like - that much, for that?! no way!. So I put it back.

    Until they lower their prices, they'll likely continue to have problems. Of course, TV/movies/video games don't help either since they help kids build the ADD/ADHD tendancies instead of helping them be creative, get physical exercise, and help out in society like they should be doing.
  • by ajd1474 (558490) on Monday November 28, 2005 @01:47AM (#14126970)
    I think that's the difference. When I was a kid, my brothers and I got a new set of lego for every birthday and xmas. The thing was that after we built the model, it got pulled apart and went in with the rest of the sets. We wouldn't build singular model jets, or spacehips, or cars, or boats. We built entire cities, space centres, ski resorts, fleets of ships. We would literaly build until we'd run out of blocks. Then pull it apart and start again. But these were 3-4 week projects, and everything worked. Ski lifts that actually worked, tractors with ploughs that moved etc etc. We couldn't afford transformers, so we'd build our own out of Lego. We weren't allowed to have a proper electric trainset, so we got a lego one and build a dozen different train sets. That was and IS what is cool about lego. Our lego was the only toy we ever needed, because with a bit of creativity it WAS every other toy.

    Just recently, I started collecting all the star wars stuff that I couldn't have when i was a kid. Like the AT-AT, Millenium Falcon etc. And they do sit there and wont go in with the rest, because they are models in their own right. So you can have a bit of both.

    But really... the Harry Potter and Spiderman stuff REALLY sucks.
  • Re:This is a sin (Score:5, Interesting)

    by geoskd (321194) on Monday November 28, 2005 @01:48AM (#14126971)
    I heard that in 2004, American colleges graduated but 40,000 engineers while Pacific Rim ones graduated 450,000. Not only that, when you consider that 1/3 to 1/2 of American students are actually forigners, the picture looks even bleaker!


    Ok, this is the third time this month I have heard this statistic, but It's about time we cleared a little of the BullSh*t around this topic.
    The US graduates just over 40,000 engineers / ~250 Million individuals. This is about 1 in every 6000 people.
    The pacific Rim graduates about 450,000 engineers / 2.7 Billion individuals. This is about 1 in every 6000 people.
    The long and the short is that we are about on par as education goes, we are simply outnumbered on this planet at almost 30 : 1

    As for lego, Their main malfunction has been pretty much just as TFA described: Bad market analysis coupled with a changing market. Shame on them for not doing their homework and we can all move on.

    -=Geoskd
    www.geoskd.com [geoskd.com]
  • by Chyeld (713439) <chyeldNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday November 28, 2005 @01:55AM (#14126989)
    Why do we have to turn everything in to a time limited, disposable, keep repurchasing nightmare?>

    Because eveyone has to eat, and few people are willing to work for nothing and rely on the soup kitchen.

    Sell Mindstorm kits at $50, have them fly off the shelves this Christmas. Have every kid in the world own a kit.

    Then what? What do you sell then? Or are you going to take the miniscule profits you made off the first run and continue to pay your employees off of it? Fat Chance.

    They have to continue to sell because they need your money to pay the cost of doing buisness. They charged $200 not because they were gouging, but because that's the price point where they thought they could make back the loss in repeat customers with direct profit.

    Now, I'm not taking their side on the issue, I'm not taking the stance that they should just return to 100% reusable cheap parts either.

    But to not see why people build obselence into their products is to have a fundemental misunderstanding of economics in this world. There is nothing wrong with trying to 'keep them coming back', the problem is when the methods you choose in themselves are poor or unethical. In Lego's case, I would agree with another poster, they've failed in either case. That's why they are pulling back from the line. They can't see a way to sell it that won't cut their throat further down the road, so they are just slowly abandoning the line. It's sad. But it's the fate of hundreds of products out there and it's simply an economic fact that not everything the public loves is going to be something a company can make money off of in the long-term, at regarldess of price.

  • by logicnazi (169418) <logicnazi@gmail. ... minus herbivore> on Monday November 28, 2005 @02:13AM (#14127048) Homepage
    One thing the author does not seem to take into account is the fixed cost of creating machines, factories, etc.. to build any blocks or other items specific to mindstorms. Even if the RIS is selling for 3 times the price of similarly equiped sets if way less people are buying the RIS it may not be worth the cost of keeping the factory running and other fixed (yearly) costs to produce that product line. The same issues come into play with the cheap chinese product he compared to the lego product. Additionally quality, place of production and other factors can all combine to make it considerably more expensive.

    Frankly I find the canibalization idea pretty hard to swallow. It just doesn't seem reasonable to believe that the same people using the RIS would otherwise be out there buying all the different specialized lego models. Most likely they would be the people out there buying the big boxes of assorted pieces if they were buying legos at all. The best explanations I can think of along these lines is that either LEGO was afraid of dilluting it's child friendly brand by marketing toys which might be too complex for some young children or that if feared connecting basic lego sales to something like mindstorms where more savy adult customers are involved might allow FischerTechnik to get a foot in the door. However, neither of these seem plausible.

    Ultimately I suspect the economics of selling mindstorms were just more complicated than the author realizes. He never quotes actual mindstorms sales figures, only a positive press buzz, so it is quite posssible they simply never achieved wide enough adoption to make money and there are large costs he never even considers. Marketing, deals with stores for promotions and other costs may all play a role in lego's deciscion.

    While I don't think we can really say what the whole story is without more data I think a more reasonable guess is something like this. Despite positive press buzz mindstorms simply don't sell enough to generate significant amounts of profit. While the development of mindstorms itself may be a sunk cost this means it simply isn't work lego's while to develop new addons, promote the product or otherwise devote further resources. Lego discontinued all mindstorm products other than the RIS because these other *mindstorm* products were canibalizing revenue from the RIS. Even though these other product lines may have themselves been profitable without the same sales as RIS they just wouldn't have as high a margin so if a reasonable fraction of people would buy a second RIS if they didn't have these other options lego might improve profitability by dropping these additional sets. If they don't think it is worth investing more money in the mindstorm line this has no real downside for them.

    As for why lego doesn't simply adjust prices to make the mindstorms sufficently profitable to justify further investment I suspect things are a little more complicated than the author suggests. The demand curve is likely far from linear which dramatic drop offs in sales if they push the price much above $200 and beyond what most people consider to be in the 'toy' range. So raising the price much isn't really an option but this doesn't imply that lowering the price would have similarly dramatic increases in purchases (the elasticity is far from constant). Likely in order to make mindstorm sales high enough to be worth significant R&D money they would have to lower the price so considerably that then mindstorms would directly canabalize regular lego sales (if you can get the computer set for an extra $30 who wouldn't).
  • by gandy909 (222251) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `909ydnag'> on Monday November 28, 2005 @02:22AM (#14127074) Homepage Journal
    I really think there were 2 basic problems. I live in the midwest, and I have NEVER seen them on a commercial as far as advertising goes... As a matter of fact, I had never even heard of them until I saw them mentioned here on /. a couple of years or so ago. Since then I began 'looking' for them in the stores I frequent. I actually saw one in a store...once. I belive it was at Best Buy, and it was kind of tucked away on a bottom shelf at/near the PSX/XBox/Gamecube section. My son has never mentioned them to me either, which leads me to believe that there has been little or no advertising for them on the various kids channels either.

    Bottom line, lots of advertising (on TV especially), and put them prominently on the shelf in the Lego/Bionicle section at WAL-MART, and they may well have succeeded!

  • Mostly (Score:2, Interesting)

    by havoc (22870) on Monday November 28, 2005 @02:24AM (#14127079)
    Most of what has been said is true. In addition to pricing issues, I believe that the expansion sets were not very well laid out. After purchasing my initial kit in 1999, I waited for the expansions to come with the other cool sensors, but the kits that came really didn't offer much (especially at their $50 price point). To get the special sensors I was going to have to special order them individually at an outrageious price. I did purchase a few Technic kits to canabalize for parts for my robots though. The other issue I had with the kit, though this wouldn't have caused sales problems but would have been nice for the next generation of mindstorms, was that all my robots were built around the brick, motors and sensors. If the motors and sensors had been slighly less expensive and more readily available individually, I would have picked up more of them and if the main brick could have been smaller and seperated from the robot somehow (perhaps with a central wiring harness brick) then I could have built more robots without having to take one robot apart just to make another one. This would have help increase sales. I think that Lego should have embraced the other programming options for the Mindstorm.

    Bottom line, smaller Mindstorm kits on store shelves for motors, sensors, gears, etc; Continued gradual improvements to keep the product line moving forward.
  • by ScottCooperDotNet (929575) on Monday November 28, 2005 @02:47AM (#14127139)
    I ditto the comments regarding the plastic airplane model plans and the overspecializtion of pieces, but I'm suprized the grey and black castle pieces haven't been brought up much. It was the one specialized piece that worked with the rest and allowed a lone kid to make large structures quickly, even with ramparts and swinging walls to allow the archer figures to be moved inside. Those were the days...

    I'm suprized they don't have a $100-200 kit that has a motor, video cam, and wheels, so one could wirelessly control the vehicle one makes. That'd even work for non-Lego hovercraft.

  • by Jesus_666 (702802) on Monday November 28, 2005 @03:16AM (#14127200)
    Come on. They could easily sell a Mindstorms set for 50 USD and then release individual pieces like additional motors or a better main unit separately. We use Mindstorms at my university for simple robotics learnning. It's amazing how a 200 Euro kit contains basically just two motors, two sensors, an 8-bit ATMega chip and a bunch of Lego Technic things. If I had the time I'd make an ATMEga PCB myself and give the plans to the university - they'd save a lot of money, gain access to C programmable exercise robots and have the ability to give people enough parts to actually make something useful (a robotic arm with 1 DOF is not).
    The parts for the PCB themselves come in at about fifteen to twenty bucks, including a 16-bit ATMega. If we add a few motors, some wires and a bunch of simple sensors we might reach the fifty EUR mark, not counting bulk discounts. Even though the Mindstorms prices have dropped a bit 50 EUR is a damn good price for a kit that does much more than a 120 EUR Mindstorms kit. Mindstorms might be competitive if it was priced similarly (people don't have to learn C in order to program it), but not for the current price.

    Maybe I should tell the Prof to just give some E-Tech student twenty bucks to make a PCB design...
  • Expensive lego (Score:3, Interesting)

    by grahamsz (150076) on Monday November 28, 2005 @03:17AM (#14127205) Homepage Journal
    One of my brothers friends had some real solid gold and silver lego bricks. His father was a goldsmith and seemingly just made them for fun.

    I think most of ours were inherited or from garage sales. Though i do remember when i first got one of the knights and castles models that had custom pieces - even back then i wasn't too happy about it.
  • Re:Here's my 2 cents (Score:3, Interesting)

    by FleaPlus (6935) on Monday November 28, 2005 @03:19AM (#14127211) Journal
    This kit has or had potential to hook kids into robotics, but IMHO they should emphasize extending a "video game" interface into real life peripherals (ie, doing something in a "video game" experience causes something in real life with Mindstorms something like augmented reality).

    Actually, Lego did something similar to this with their Spybotics [lego.com] system. I never really tried it myself, but saw it demoed in stores. If I recall correctly, you used it to build a little vehicle with a processor simpler than the Mindstorms', which you used to perform various "covert missions." Unfortunately, it seemed like it was a little -too- simple, and you couldn't actually use the kit to build anything other than the intended vehicle.
  • by Karora (214807) on Monday November 28, 2005 @03:29AM (#14127231) Homepage

    My son has just turned 8, and he loves Lego. We buy new stuff regularly (and the odd tub of basic pieces) and he makes them up, pulls them apart and they all end up in that enormous soup of Lego blocks. He makes some amazing stuff from that primordial soup, none of it scripted, but he frequently does use some of those parts that came with the Spiderman sets, or the Harry Potter sets or the X-Pods or the Orient Expedition sets or the Star Wars sets.

    In fact I don't see that things have changed a whole heap, except that with a big pile of Lego now you can make a damn site more interesting things than I could thirty years ago when I used to babysit for some kids who had Lego (I had Meccano as a kid myself). I used to build houses (well, with bricks, windows and roofs what else are you going to make?) and the kids I was babysitting for used to play with them for the next few weeks. When their parents would tell them they were going out and they would have a babysitter they would destroy everything, in the hope that I would have some more fun with their lego and they could have some more fun playing with a new set of designs.

    Sure, so I never read the books and it was just purely creative play. My son's read all the instructions, but that just doesn't challenge him and he moves on.

    Lego, on the other hand, has substantially more variety than it did when I was a kid, and that means that what can be created is exponentially more varied.

    Great article though. It would be nice to see Lego producing some of the sorts of kits that are suggested at the end, and perhaps that is what the X-Pods do, and some of the other things that encourage the kids to build and rebuild in different configurations.

  • by NATIK (836405) on Monday November 28, 2005 @03:35AM (#14127245)
    I was on a tour of the Danish Headquarters of Lego last year, the speaker there told us that they felt the same way about it and wanted to return to the basics. Just last week i heard in the news that they are actually making money again due to their returning to the basics. So would say they ahve already done this, dunno if its visible all over the world yet, but atleast around here they are selling good again.
  • by Quadraginta (902985) on Monday November 28, 2005 @05:54AM (#14127509)
    They're expensive for a very good reason. The manufacturing tolerances on those little bastards are absurdly tight, because they have to click together solidly, tightly enough that you can build something out of a few hundred bricks and not have it crack apart under its own weight, but loosely enough that they can be pried apart with the force an average 8-year-old can exert. That implies very demanding engineering requirements indeed. Take a look at those little bricks, and measure them. I can easily believe the dimensions on any of the next million bricks off LEGO's assembly line all match to within 0.1% or better.

    Now, that would be not so terribly hard to do in metal, because metal is a very reliable material to work. You can mold it, punch it, machine it and cast it and easily make sure every one of a million copies of a given piece matches the rest to the nearest tenth millimeter. But it is a real bitch in plastic, because plastic has all kinds of non-Newtonian fluid weirdness that make it much harder to positively guarantee the final dimensions of a piece.

    In short, LEGO's ability to manufacture those bricks in plastic and to the required high tolerance is a real engineering feat. Hence, it costs. You can easily buy LEGO clone bricks for much, much cheaper. But 10% of them won't click to the rest at all, and anything you build bigger than about 50 bricks will just fall apart.

    I wouldn't be surprised if it was a similar case with the RCX unit. The....ah, person of modest real-world experience, shall we say, who wrote TFA compares it to some piece of electronic trash that would probably fail in 90 days of real use and concludes: Gee, they look the same and have the same stated functions, so I guess they ought to cost the same to manufacture.

    Might as well have looked at a Mercedes E-class and a Yugo and said: Gee, they both have four wheels and an engine, and are designed to transport me at highway speed -- they must cost about the same to manufacture! So why does the Benz retail for so much more?
  • Re:IMNSHO... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by TrappedByMyself (861094) on Monday November 28, 2005 @06:39AM (#14127592)
    I think you're 'crestfallen' that your kid isn't like you. Nothing is preventing him from taking a modern LEGO set, tossing the instructions, and building wacky things with it. The new sets are great because all the new pieces they offer give you limitless options. Maybe you raised your kid to 'follow the rules' and he did, or maybe he's just the type that likes to have boundaries set.

    If anything, LEGO is guilty of offering too many options. They have the sets with tons of pieces, and the sets with just a few highly specialized ones. Take your pick. If you don't like what they offer, get their LEGO Factory software and design and order your own custom set. I really can't figure out why offering more options makes LEGO a bad company around here. If you're trying to claim that LEGO made your kid stupid, then I think the problem lies with you and your expectations.
  • Re:IMNSHO... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by metamatic (202216) on Monday November 28, 2005 @03:00PM (#14131122) Homepage Journal
    The sets didn't include step-by-step instructions for making any of these things. AAMOF, I don't remember any instruction sheets at all.

    Not only did most sets come with instruction sheets as far back as 1964 or so, there were also books of additional instructions for making more stuff. By 1966 there were over 50 sets, including the LEGO train system. By 1970 they had gears and cogs, the forerunner to TECHNIC.

    So I think either you're in your 50s or older, or your memory is faulty. Or you did like Ralph Wiggum and ate the instructions.

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