The future of LDraw?

A recent discussion at LUGNET raised questions about the future of LDraw in the fan community. Oddly enough I feel I’ve seen a resurgence in LDraw work recently but of course like all of us I tend to see what I want to see so I figured I’d throw some questions out to a wider audience.

... The first question is, obviously, have you ever heard of LDraw? And if you have do you know what it is? Have you ever considered using it but decided against it? If so why? Did you know the parts are all designed by volunteers?

To quickly give an overview it’s a CAD system and associated library designed to let you build LEGO models on your computer. It’s not the editors (those are things like MLCAD, LeoCAD and Bricksmith) or the renderers (like LDView) but the system all of these use and the parts library. Like LDD but more versatile. All the pictures in this article are recent creations designed in LDraw compatible software.

...If you are a user I’d really like to know what you use LDraw for? Do you use it to document old models? To make instructions? To make nice pictures? To make things you don’t have the bricks for? To design models you later build in bricks? Other reasons?

...Personally I feel that LDraw has enriched my LEGO hobby immeasurably and I am constantly thankful to all the volunteers who have dedicated their time to making it such a good system. I don’t ever want to see it die a slow death and I don’t think I will. I would, however, like to know what a newer and broader audience thinks.

So please, comment here, on LUGNET, or on flickr. But please do comment if you are remotely interested.

Image credit to LDraw.org, Tyler Clites (legohaulic), Mike Pianta (scruffulous) and Robin Chang (GreenLead) from top to bottom

27 comments on “The future of LDraw?

  1. worker201

    Wait, there was a discussion at Lugnet?

    In all seriousness, I have used LDraw before. Usually, my goal is to document a creation so I can perhaps build it again one day. I have also done it because I wanted a vector version of one of my models for nefarious purposes. I do understand and appreciate that the project is undertaken 100% by volunteers, and that all the associated software is free of charge. But every single time I try to use it, I find myself lacking some extremely important part which has no acceptable substitute. When this inevitably happens, I get frustrated and give up. Then, after about 6 months, I’ll try again… and the cycle continues.

    I’ve occasionally used LDD (the official program) as well. Although its part and color palettes are extremely limited, it has a fantastic snapping feature that allows parts to “click” together easily. However, being an official product, it does not accept the illegal construction techniques which so often are the basis of great SNOT. So it falls short of my expectations as well.

  2. jdevilbiss

    LDraw is the sole reason I started building again last year. Being able to build without parts limitations made it glorious again, and it is the only way I can build big because my collection is relatively meager. I actually use a combination of LDD and MLCAD. Despite its limitations, LDD is really great for rapid prototyping. I then use MLCAD to refine the design, add details, and generate a parts list. It has so completely changed the way I build that I don’t enjoy designing nearly as much without it.

  3. buriedbybricks

    I’ve never used LDraw myself, but I was aware of many models being designed with it. I would have to say that I am interested in using it, however my LEGO time is extremely limited. I’m luck if I find a couple of hours a week to haul out the plastic, so I’m hesitant to give up the hands on approach.
    I didn’t know that it was maintained by volunteers which is very impressive, but the thought of getting half way through a model and missing a crucial piece sounds too much like what happens to me in real life. 70% of what I build never makes it to the fnish line due to my dissatisfaction. I’d guess it’s easier to find a substitute hands on rather then virtually.
    Still I will admit it does intrest me now that I know it can handle SNOT, a real weakness of mine…

  4. Kevin J. Walter

    I’ve used Ldraw and MLCad to realize my biggest project and dream so far, out of Legos – The Klingon Bird of Prey (if someone is interested in: http://www.flickr.com/photos/41823416@N08/4150604222/ ).
    I wanted to do it in the same minifig scale as the LEGO company used for the UCS Millenium Falcon. Because of its enormous size, the fact that the parts I needed for it, aren’t exist in the necessary colors and its structural integrity caused of the size, I used Ldraw for it.
    Now after two years of developing and virtual construction, it is finished. With a total partcount of nearly 275.000 and a length of 516 studs (409 cm) the using of Ldraw was the only intellegent solution!
    Sure, I had some difficulties with it, but nothing what couldn’t be solved.
    At last I want to thank all the developers of this great system for giving me a chance to realize my dreams – even without real bricks.

  5. anoved

    Like you, Tim, I don’t perceive the situation to be so dire. I see LDraw images posted to Flickr by folks who aren’t exclusively virtual modelers. I think it’s true, whatever the reason, that LUGNET and the LDraw.org home page aren’t very active – but the library tracker is a good indicator that the library itself certainly isn’t stagnant. Work proceeds on the software: snooping around in Sourceforge reveals a Bricksmith update is on the way, and LPub has come a long way since its ambitious beginnings.

    Personally, I use LDraw to record the design of models I’ve built in real life. Since I usually build alternate models, this helps me recycle the parts without losing the memory or details of the design. The act of methodically disassembling and reassembling a model for CAD often reveals ways I can improve the construction. Occasionally I make instructions, and I hope to do so much more in the future.

    Your Introduce Yourself thread in the LDraw group on Flickr is another good place to see the variety of uses people find for LDraw.

  6. eti

    To me, Ldraw and MLCad is one and the same. I’m not interested in the programming part, I’m purely an end user. I don’t like using it, but I do find it of great value. Let me explain.

    The main reason I don’t like using it is that I like building with Lego to physically do something and be away from the computer for a change. So that rules out all computer software in the first place.

    Also, I found it a hassle having to install the various components (MLCad, LDraw, whatnot) and make them work. There was also a function to make shiny looking pictures out of your creations (Powray or something like that) which I never got to work at all.

    That said, I can use it. I have sometimes made instructions and LDraw, MLCad or whatever it’s called works great. It is easy to find the parts you need and it takes some getting used to but in the end you fit the parts in place. There is a function to make steps and import them as jpegs, then I will order these in Photoshop to make instructions.

    Another very good point is that most parts that are not included can be found on the internet and can be imported.

    Still, the whole of it is a mishmash of applications and functionalities that are not easy to find your way in. In order for the program to really work, there would have to be one installation package, so that end users don’t have to bother with multiple applications, and the program would need to auto-update whenever people have created new parts. Also that povray-function would have to be included as an easy option that will make any design shine with the click of one button.

    But even with the user-unfriendliness it still has now, it is still way better than Lego’s own LDD. I haven’t managed to get even 2 bricks together in LDD, besides it only knows active parts and no classic Lego parts , and everything looks so shiny that you can’t make out the color. And the line between 2 parts fades in LDD. So I find LDD more or less worthless, whereas LDraw/MLCad gets the job done even though it’s not particulary easy.

  7. matt

    I’m a big fan of LDraw. I’m still using it, and used to use it exclusively for my LEGO building, as you know, but have now started to also build in real-life bricks. I just built one of my models from LDraw with real bricks for the first time, and after figuring out how to find a solution to the parts that don’t exist in colors I used in MLCAD, I produced a very decent model. And you know, it’s a different experience building in real life compared to CAD, but if the real-life collection is big enough, both can give the same satisfactory feeling when a good model is completed.

    LDraw is a fantastic program for putting concepts together, and the renders that some have been able to achieve are just amazing. Those are the reasons I’ll keep building in LDraw. Plus, I’m so comfortable with finding parts in MLCAD that the real-world experience of finding parts in my semi-organized collection is really time-consuming! Regarding the comments about parts that are unavailable in LDraw, I’ve really found that with the exception of only the newest parts LEGO is making, along with minifig parts from the past ~5 years or so, most of the useful newer parts I’ve been looking for (eg cheese slopes, curved slopes, etc) have been available through the unofficial parts library, and they look fine and seem to render fine as well. It’s more likely to me to have used a part in LDraw that doesn’t exist in that color in real life.

  8. Starwars4J

    My answer is going to be a lot shorter and more concise than many of the great responses above. No, I don’t use Ldraw, yes I am aware of its existence, and yes I have seen many people using it.

    Personally if anything I thought I’ve seen MORE ldraw use in recent times (maybe due to the economy and associated cost/increased prices of physical bricks). Yes I was aware that the ldraw entity was made entirely by volunteers…since there’s no money going into it from subscriptions and the like. I think it’s a wonderful thing.

    As to why I don’t use Ldraw, I just need the physical bricks in my hands. To me (maybe it’s different to others) I find it more time consuming and tedious to rotate a model or piece to place a single part than to do it with physical bricks. Maybe I should start it, just so I can check out potential connections I have in my head before I place a BL order, but I haven’t been wrong on enough occasions to warrant that me thinks. And besides, having a bunch of random parts to just play with has been the foundation of many of my favorite connections and techniques around which MOCs are built. I can’t do that in ldraw.

    However I have seen some stunning Ldraw models made (some of which I couldn’t tell were ldraw, after a good render), and I hope it continues to stay around and grow as an integral part of the community.

  9. Remi

    I’ve been using LDraw for years now. I use it to document builds and make instruction books.

    I think LDraw’s major drawback is it’s total lack of connectivity. I can build a model in LDD much, much faster than in LDraw because LDD parts all snap together, fast and easy. Yes, LDD *requires* connectivity, but if LDraw had some kind of optional connectivity, I think a lot more people would use it.

    I’ve seen the up & coming SR3D Builder and it’s connectivity solution – any chance LDraw could embrace that standard, or is that approach somehow flawed?

    Also, I know LDraw is the entire system, but LDraw is only as good as it’s modeling tool – without which LDraw is useless. I know it’s not nice to rag on ‘free’ software, but MLCad is really showing its age. Every time I launch MLCad, I get more and more frustrated by its pretty fundamental flaws. I’m at the point where I build as much of a model as possible in LDD, then convert it to LDraw, to avoid MLCad as much as possible.

    I’d write a replacement for MLCad myself, but I’m too busy with instruction book software.

    I’m on windows, so Bricksmith is out. SR3D isn’t ready yet. What is it with LDraw and closed-source, single-platform modelers?

  10. MV

    Personally, I don’t and probably never will use a CAD for Lego building, as to me it would take a lot of the fun out of the brick. Lego is a visceral hobby and I very much enjoy the process of constructing, deconstructing and constructing through trial and error. Sure, it may be a bit frustrating at times, but the payoff is worth it. Granted, I tend to build smaller things and if I ever did try and take on a large project, I might consider using a CAD to help with piece counts and such, but for the time being I stay away from them, regardless of which CAD is being discussed.

    And I don’t fault anyone else for using CADs…to each their own :)

  11. gavinhunter06

    Lately I’m really big on the LDD stuff. The export to LDraw feature has allowed me to order bricks from both Lego.com and Bricklink. I am surprised to hear people have difficulty with LDD. The snap brick feature makes it easier to use, in my opinion, than LDraw which I am still having trouble getting used to using the x,y,z plane. I just purchased the LDRAW book from amazon though and plan to become very efficient with it. The only setback is having to add in new files or being a step behind whenever Lego adds or changes their bricks.

  12. TaltosVT

    I use MLCad and LDraw all the time. My usage has changed over the years. Originally I used it to document my builds so that I could recreate them again at a later date. That was when I had a small collection and didn’t leave MOCs assembled for long. At one time, I was dabbling in creating instructions, but I found that I didn’t really enjoy that aspect.

    These days I use it mostly as a place to try out ideas for things that I may not yet have the parts for. If the idea is workable, it gives me a shopping list of parts to look for on Bricklink. I can also try out different color schemes without investing in tons of parts.

    Personally, I think that usage of LDraw started to die out at about the same time that parts updates stopped coming in regular intervals. For those of us who aren’t into the programming/parts authoring aspect, those updates were something to look forward to.

    Now that parts updates are starting to come again, I think users will continue to use LDraw. It’s much less limited than LDD, and additional software by the fan community makes it a great tool (though I will admit as an end user that I often struggle trying to get programs to work together).

  13. gambort Post author

    TaltosVT said> Personally, I think that usage of LDraw started to die out at about the same time that parts updates stopped coming in regular intervals. For those of us who aren’t into the programming/parts authoring aspect, those updates were something to look forward to.

    Actually that vaguely fits with my observations although it hadn’t occurred to me (I get most of my parts from the Parts Tracker as I need them). The change in license was slow and tedious for the end users but now that it is done we can finally get both the parts AND software in a single package which is very useful. Previously this was illegal.

  14. GreenLead

    I got into LDraw a couple of years back as an alternative to building with physical elements – at this point in time I simply can’t afford any BrickLink orders, and I no longer have access to my collection at home. I found the suite to have a fairly steep learning curve, but once the basics were mastered, the results are always highly rewarding.

    My use of LDraw centres around my Alpha Company Forums pet project, where members are encouraged to build official models of various military vehicles relevant to the canon. The designs are solicited from some of the best LEGO Military builders like Chandler Parker, Carter Baldwin and Aleksander Engvoll, so that newbies can quickly learn from new skills from studying those builders’ works.

    In particular, the CAD model attributed to me in this post was based on a physical model originally made by Aleks – he helped prepare all the disassembly images from which I recreated the CAD version for.

    I was also inspired by Jim “anoved” DeVona’s to turn these official models into building instruction PDFs.

    I would tend to think that virtual and physical Lego go hand-in-hand with each other – a skilled user can use the software to quickly verify some aspects of a design before committing to real parts, or explore different variants.

  15. blondie

    LDraw and the associated software was a major component in pulling me out of my dark ages. The key for me is that now the Lego hobby is completely vertically integrated. I can now:

    - Design anything my imagination desires with no parts on hand
    - Export a parts list for that creation
    - Import that parts list into BrinkLink
    - Order all the parts
    - Build my creation, referring back to my design

    That elegant process is much more difficult and time consuming without LDraw in the loop.

    LDraw is also an invaluable experimentation tool. While designing a SHiP, I wanted to try some exotic structural ideas, but had no idea if they were practical. With LDraw I could easily mock it up, check piece counts, deduce weight and size, estimate costs, and get the shape right without shelling out hundreds of dollars for pieces upfront for ideas that might not have worked.

    So in short, I’m incredibly grateful LDraw and the hardworking community around it exists. I’d like to make note of BrickSmith as well- without that I might still be in my dark age.

  16. Dave

    I posted this at LUGNET, but figured I would post here too.

    1) Have you ever heard of LDraw? And if you have do you know what it is? Have you ever considered using it but decided against it? If so why? Did you know the parts are all designed by volunteers?

    Yes, I have heard of L-Draw and use it quite a bit. I have it installed on both my laptop and my desktop and own both reference books that cover the software. I try to visit L-Draw.org every couple months to see what has been updated and to keep up on the parts list.

    2) If you are a user I’d really like to know what you use LDraw for? Do you use it to document old models? To make instructions? To make nice pictures? To make things you don’t have the bricks for? To design models you later build in bricks? Other reasons?

    I use L-Draw mainly when I don’t have access to my physical bricks and want to build. I travel a lot for my job so I often find myself with time on the road where I need to relax for a bit. Sometimes I play video games on my DSi, but often I find myself turning to L-draw to document new concepts or just as an outlet for my creativity. Occasionally, I will also document old LEGO sets for the Bluebrick software or do building instructions for some of my MOC’s if the mood strikes me.

    I prefer L-Draw/MLCAD over LDD any day! I think that’s mainly because I started by using L-Draw/MLCAD back in 2003. I just haven’t given LDD a fair trial as L-Draw/MLCAD fills all of my needs at this time.

  17. peterlmorris

    Yes, I use LDraw (well, MLCAD and LDView specifically) and I will continue to use it in the future. I use it to document MOCs and sometimes make instructions.

    In the very near future, it will have a much more interactive application, but that’s all I can say about that right now.

  18. remco1974

    I recently rediscovered LDraw. Way back in 1997, I did use it (and LEdit) for a while when I built the ‘thing’ on Pink Floyd’s Relics lp from the parts of the 8480 Space Shuttle set, and wanted to make building instructions for it. When I needed some parts that weren’t yet available in LDraw, James Jessiman himself encouraged me to design them myself. (You may find about a dozen parts with my name on them.) After James died, I was there when the LDraw Parts Tracker started, so yes, I know that LDraw is run by volunteers. However, quite soon after, I lost my interest in Lego.

    Only recently, I picked up this hobby again. I rebuilt the old sets from my childhood, bought the 4997 Transport Ferry set, and found out about DesignByMe and LDD. I designed a 1843-part globe in LDD which is currently being hand-picked for me. But for making building instructions, I turned to LDraw again. This time around with MLCAD as front end, which I think is a great tool (but why is there no Undo?)

    I think the biggest compliment for LDraw is that LDD features an export function to .ldr, which I gratefully used a lot. It was great to see that the Parts Tracker still exists after all these years, and I hope to use LDraw/MLCAD a lot in the future.

  19. thwaak

    I am aware of the various Lego CAD (LDraw, LDD, MLCAD, what-have-you), and I know it’s volunteer. I’ve even tried it a couple of times.

    I didn’t like it. When I build, I usually go through a lot of attempts at getting something “just right” and with my collection, I can play around, try it from different angles, or maybe scrap an entire section for a quick rebuild…all sorts of things that take too long in program.

    As some others have said, my time is limited, and if I can spare a moment, I will break out the actual brick.

  20. karl

    I have LDraw and like it. I am also a cad designer by career, so it is kind of fitting for me.

    The main reasons are for documenting my builds, creating an idea without having the right brick on hand and create a part list so I know what I need to order.

    Personally I think it is a great reference tool. There are many cad models posted on Mocpages. Is a cad lego moc (with no real lego moc to follow) considered a true moc?

  21. Marin

    I have it and I use it. Mostly for unimportant stuff I don’t want to go through building and photographing for (someone on our forum asks for help with a certain construction; or “How was this built?”). I can easily let people know of my ideas and solutions.

  22. SimLego

    @karl: “Is a cad lego moc (with no real lego moc to follow) considered a true moc?”

    If you ask me, yes without a doubt! Have a look at the LCad joint project Datsville:
    http://www.lugnet.com/cad/datsville/
    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=188200221436
    It’s the first rule* that the models submitted to this project are MOCs, but nowhere is it stated that these MOCs have to be built IRL before submitting to Datsville.
    *) This rule has unfortunately been violated without being discovered in time. Therefor we are looking for a new train, this time a real MOC, and repainting the gas station in order to make it brand neutral.

  23. Benjamin P

    I just recently installed LDraw (I would say about 3 weeks ago) and love it. I use MLCAD and while it has its quirks, like not always lining up and syncing with studs (especially once they are not on top), it is so much better than LEGO Digital Designer.

    It is fun to use if you have an idea and want to test some ideas out before going onto BrickLink to order the pieces needed, or to throw around ideas without needing to dump out your entire collection onto the floor.

    I first downloaded it because a friend asked me to build a Droid cellphone dock for him, based on pictures, and then order pieces off of BrickLink, but I had been wanting to download it before then just so I could have a digital LEGO builder. I’ve fooled around a little, testing out designs for spaceships, but nothing serious.

    I still do not know my way around everything, like keyboard hotkeys (if there even are any), but I bet once I look up more information I’ll have things figured out.

  24. Tim Courtney

    Tim, thanks for raising this topic.

    Just now I’m getting around to skimming the various thoughts about “the future of LDraw.” Having spent a bit of time thinking over related issues while wishing I could practically contribute, here are my thoughts.

    Please take these as constructive observations from a perpetual student of what works on the web. For the sake of time I’m going to be terse, however I’m certainly not telling anyone what to do. Rather, I’m succinctly outlining suggestions based both on history with the LDraw and LEGO community and my digital strategy, community development and marketing career.

    So, please take my words as coming from an attiude of the utmost respect for your and others’ tireless efforts, and also from a desire to add some constructive ideas. :-)

    It’s plainly evident LUGNET is no longer an adequate place for official discussion of LDraw. With new users not being able to sign up, and with lack of administrative support, not to mention functional but seriously dated technology, it simply is not sustainable. Now that people are using Flickr, Brothers Brick, Facebook, and other sites to have this discussion, it’s time to look elsewhere.

    It’s encouraging to see Orion’s plan to migrate LDraw.org to a new CMS. The team has done an outstanding job with what we have, though migration is long overdue. Is there any way for this to happen sooner? I’ll understand if no, but just asking. :-)

    My hope is that there’s a designer and usability architect among LDraw’s fans that’s equally as talented in his own field as Orion and you (Tim) are with administrating the web site, to re-present (vs. represent) LDraw and bring the site up to the expectations of today’s savvy Internet users. I’ve long felt that the lack of focus and clear, concise calls to action on LDraw.org have been responsible for a lot of unconverted interest. I believe an equal emphasis into design, usability, and involving users in a functional discussion community would breathe new life into LDraw.

    Whatever new CMS is selected (I’m assuming Joomla or Drupal), I imagine the discussion system will be robust (or a more robust plugin can be found). Also, think about integration with popular social sites. On the web today, it’s easier to find and engage users where they already are online; we know that Facebook is nudging out Google for the most traffic, and we know there’s a vibrant LEGO community on Flickr. Those can become the new outposts to attract people to LDraw and to aggregate conversations about LDraw. Further, actively encourage use of an #LDraw Twitter hashtag.

    If Flickr and Facebook’s APIs have the ability to pull out discussions (they may not, I haven’t looked), then find ways to aggregate or at least display that discussion on the new CMS site. For blogs, consider using a popular comment community like Disqus or Intense Debate to thread comments across sites.

    It’s impressive that this system and user community has survived as long as it has solely on the volunteer efforts of passionate fans. In the now years it’s been since my active involvement, I’ve gained even more respect for the persistence of people like Orion, Willy, and Tim. I’m hopeful that the LDraw community will successfully re-invent itself and see new life with many more people playing with and sharing virtually-built LEGO models.

    Tangental note:

    One thing I’ve seen work successfully for innovation is the concept of Hackathons (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hackathon). We’ve been doing more and more of these from a competitive perspective in the Chicago technology community and I’ve seen the energy that comes out of Hackathons in other places such as iPhoneDevCamp in Sunnyvale. Facebook also holds internal hackathons out of which tremendous innovation for the site has emerged (watch the first video here: http://www.facebook.com/careers/life.php). At SXSW in Austin last week, I attended a session by some tech community leaders in Philadelphia who used a hackathon to build the web site that is now campaigning for Google fiber investment in their community, yielding a finished product (strategy, design, web site) in a single day. (If you are interested, please write me for detailed notes from this talk).

    Realizing that the LDraw admins and users live all over the globe, having such an in-person purpose-driven meeting would be difficult. However, if there were a concentration of talented LDrawheads (and one admin) in an area who could get together for a day or two, that could be a reality. Alternatively, something like this could be organized over video chat. A leader like Tim or Orion could set a goal to accomplish something over a weekend, and solicit people to collaborate live until it was finished. The group could discuss in realtime and take bite-sized chunks, iterating until new resources and features were functional.

    Just throwing some constructive ideas out there. I hope you find my words encouraging and of value.

    Tim

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