Why do LEGO sets have stickers instead of printed parts [Feature]

LEGO has been using a combination of stickers and printed elements since the 1970s for decorating elements. While there’s a variety of reasons from the cost to play experience, there’s one aspect that’s less obvious and it goes down to manufacturing and storage warehousing considerations.

In a recent Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), LEGO Designer Mark John Stafford explains in a simplified manner for us to appreciate the details behind the reasons why stickers instead of printed elements.

“The limiting factor, isn’t pure finance, it’s is the same one you have at home. Space. After a while you run out of places to put your LEGO.

Think of each factory having a limited amount of space (I won’t go into why it’s limited, read ‘Brick by Brick‘ by David C. Robertson if you want to know what happens when LEGO didn’t have limits).

Every brick made, in each colour has to go into it’s own box. This box needs to be stored until it’s ready to be packed into the bags in the retail boxes you buy.

So there are thousands of boxes. Each year some bricks stop being made and this leaves empty boxes we can fill with new bricks (or new colours of bricks at least). So each team of Designers is given a number of boxes it has the chance to fill.

So let’s say you want some new minifigure legs. First you mold the hips, and fill a box, then a left leg – fill a box, a right leg – fill a box. Then you stick all those parts together and fill another box in the factory. Then if we print the legs it’s yet another box.

But consider, if we don’t print the legs then, after four non-printed legs we have saved four boxes and this means we could make a whole extra set of legs. This might mean we have a whole new character we can make.

Or alternatively the set designer can change the colour of a brick to fill that single saved ‘box’ in the factory, or print an element.

A lot of people wish we printed every part we sticker, but consider this in terms of ‘boxes’ A sticker sheet is one box, but each printed part is the box without the print, and another box after it is printed. It could take dozens of boxes to replace a single sticker sheet box.

Of course this is hugely simplified, there is also a limit to how many molding machines there are and how much time we can use to change the molds in these machines and a million other tiny issues which I’m glad I don’t have to deal with, that limit the number of ‘boxes’ available.

I hope that makes sense, I’m pretty sure I heard our old Vice President explain it a bit like this at a fan event once, so I hope it does.”

Manufacturing and Storage warehousing complexity – an insight into space management

LEGO runs a complex set of processes with a high level of accuracy to ensure that parts are managed and readily available when assembling pieces into bags for packaging. The amount of manufacturing know-how and level of execution is part of how LEGO maintains its competitive edge in providing a high level of user satisfaction. Part of managing efficiency and maintaining costs is about the reuse of elements, thus individual printed parts that are not going to be used often will affect many processes down the productisation and packaging. LEGO can never fully predict the demand of a set to a high level of accuracy which will all affect the bottlenecks of the supply chain.

The parts are stored in what LEGO calls “P boxes” (Plastic boxes) depicted in the infographic imagery and shown below. They all have barcodes affixed for machine identification.

According to Niels Duedahl, then LEGO Vice President of Manufacturing (2005-2009) “That warehouse and those P boxes are fundamental to our control – every P box has a unique bar code and nobody knows what is inside the box except the SAP and our in-house management system.”

Stickers will always be here to stay

From a child’s viewpoint, stickers are fun. Every kid at some point in time will go through a sticker phase. While adult LEGO fans will almost never appreciate stickers on our builds, LEGO has to manage parts carefully to restrict parts that only have a single-use. With the finite space and costs associated we’re pretty sure stickers will always be a part of LEGO sets.

A tub of unused LEGO stickers from TBB contributor Chris Doyle

Official LEGO sticker replacement 

If your set arrived with missing or damaged stickers, LEGO has a replacement service that you can now make formal requests. Use the Missing Bricks service on Bricks & Pieces. LEGO has even mentioned that if your sets from older stickers are coming loose, they’d be happy to send replacements if there are any on hand. Obviously, these are going to be a hit and miss for sets that go back decades. In recent updates, we’ve seen the LEGO website include sticker images for a quicker search for recent sets.

What do you think of stickers? Do your kids enjoy them? How much do you despise them? What do you do with your stickers? Let us know in the comments.



25 comments on “Why do LEGO sets have stickers instead of printed parts [Feature]

  1. SirBuildsALot

    In my expierence, the stickers get lose after about 3-5 years, even when displayed behind glass, dust-free and far away from the sun & light.

    Meanwhile, I have prints from the early ’90 which still look great. It’s disappointing change in quality for sure. But with the number of sets, that TLG releases, I’m not suprised. At least they still fully print the 4+ sets.

    How many years, after a set going EOL, are the sticker sheets generally available to request? Might want to make my Speed Champions collection look as it was supposed to again.

  2. Joschi

    Stickers are aweful. If Lego can’t provide printed parts, then they should at least include every part with stickers 2 times: This way, I can apply the sticker, and reuse the part.

  3. Ed

    At least stickers give you the option of leaving pieces unbesmirched, like the rust holes on the ECTO-1.

    This article also helps explain why pieces are only available in a limited number of colors.

  4. Mic

    I hear the stickers for the Discovery Shuttle take time & patients to put on the inside of the Shuttle doors for the cargo Bay. Most people would have like to see the doors preprinted with the silver inside the doors rather than the time consuming stickers.

  5. Mike

    I live in the South, physics dictates that when humidity hits your stickers you have about two months until your model is ruined by peeling, cracking stickers. Thus stickers are effectively useless.

  6. traindragon

    If we have to have stickers, I wish they’d stop printing the background brick’s color in the sticker. Leave it transparent! The colors never quite match anyway — plus, a transparent background would make it far easier for us to put the sticker onto abrick of a different color and create something new.

  7. unordained

    [I keep getting errors when posting replies while using the Google single-sign-on option; is this a known issue? Trying again, apologies for any duplication.]

    As I don’t keep official sets built and on display, the original printing or stickers rarely matter to me. I do like parts to be printed if they are:
    * single-part representations of objects (sock, mail, control panel, book, map)
    * patterns/textures (wood grain, warning stripes)
    * whole logos (Classic Space)
    * on small, oddly-shape, often-manipulated parts (minifigs)
    In all other cases, a sticker is fine, and I likely won’t apply it anyway; I’ll keep it in a zip-top bag until an opportunity comes along. And even in some cases I mention above … a sticker can be fine too, for reasons below.

    There’s great fun to be had buying up old sticker sheets and finding new uses for them, especially transparent sticker sheets. You get to try out old stickers on new parts or new colors, for fun effects! I’ve found, for example, that while red-stripes-on-white is a nice, classic look, those same stripes can look really interesting on dark red, orange, or gray tiles. There are several sticker sheets that contain 1×1 round stickers (or close enough) that can find new uses, now that such parts exist. Bullet-hole or damage stickers, applied to fresh MOCs, can be a treat. Even warning stripes, applied around cylinders rather than on tiles, can find new uses.

    So … thank you, TLG, for using stickers. I’d love for more of them to be transparent-backed, but I realize that’s probably more expensive (sufficiently-opaque white is difficult to achieve) and less appreciated in most cases (if poorly applied, would leave visible bubbles.) If Bricklink could tag sticker sheets by background color, that’d be a great consolation prize.

  8. Wraeththu

    I used to dislike stickers, and generally still do. For reasons stated in other comments (peeling, etc.) Worst case you have to peel off sticker and wash with warm soap and water and part is back to ‘normal’ I have applied some stickers to certain sets or repurposed them for other MOC’s. I have even found amazingly durable sticker paper (inkjet) compatible in Japan (where I currently reside) and made my own both on white backed and clear backed with good results. Third Party printers are always an option, but expensive or not what one is needing/looking for. I am also in the process of experimenting with engraving certain pieces for windows and adding gold foil. In the end it is personal preference. TLG’s space management and capacity notwithstanding.

  9. Johnny Johnson

    I never use the stickers, and I never have (Even though the original 1980 LEGOLAND ideas book sorely tempted me with its sticker sheet and fantastic narrative! But then I was like, then I won’t have the stickers anymore… so, yeah, I’ve always missed the point of stickers). This leads to me avoiding stickered sets that won’t look good without the stickers.

  10. Robert B Hunter

    I had to chuckle a little (inwardly as it’s still early and I didn’t want to wake anyone up.) at the image of the white boxes used in the illustrations as I keep my spare Lego pieces in the same Ikea box(es). They’re great since they also come with a tray on the inside to keep tiny pieces organized.

  11. Dustin French

    You might want to check the code on commenting with Google…
    I constructed a several paragraph long comment with my Google sign-in and received the following:

    Error: Google failed to return an expected code

    There might be several people trying to use this method of sign in, failing, and being discouraged from engaging in the discussion.

  12. Peter

    “The limiting factor, isn’t pure finance, it’s is the same one you have at home. Space. After a while you run out of places to put your LEGO.“

    More space costs more money… So, basically it’s still a finance matter.

  13. Al (@Al__S)

    Something maybe overlooked is that with stickers they can probably get more detailed, higher resolution designs, potentially in more vibrant colours. The state-of-the-art with digital label presses is so much better than pad-printing or digital direct to shape..

    I would say that, I’m a digital label press development engineer. But I’m not wrong. But as such, I’d love to see them put up proper pdfs for download of labels that are End of Life, available for personal use only.

  14. Nikolaus

    I wonder about the different sticker quality through the years. While some really old stickers are at least sort of hanging on (say set 396), some really fall apart all by themselves, particularly from the early 2000s. Ferrari 8386 comes to mind. Those stickers seem to have no base material, it’s like they’re actually printed on nothing but the white background paint. I really wish I could get new stickers for that set.
    Other than that, I generally like stickers. I feel it’s easier to reuse a part that has been stickered and then cleaned, than reuse a printed part of a theme that means nothing to me. Some stickers are hard to use off-label, but generic stuff like firefighters, electric wiring, or warning signs usually make sense in other contexts.
    I have gone through the pain of making custom stickers (even with white background on a transparent carrier material), but in the end it feels like cheating, because even a mediocre MOC will look eye-catching with great stickers. I’d rather want my designs to be great, than spend time and money on custom, effectively non-Lego parts, which can’t even be reused.

  15. I

    I love stickers. One of the reasons I bought the Maersk Triple E was because of its 2 massive sticker sheets. I have never once used a printed piece in a MOC, and I don’t think I’ve ever used a stickered piece either. I’ve kept every single sticker sheet unused in every set I’ve built since 2012, and once I come up with a cool way to mount them I’m going to display them on my wall.

  16. JA

    I really dislike stickers for the main reason that my Legos are meant to be played with by our family, including kids, and I have a child with sensory processing disorder who has a hard time leaving the stickers alone and will pick them off without really meaning too. I’d just leave them off to begin with but the kids want them on.

  17. Meilleur McCheese

    I’m generally not a fan of stickers, but I don’t mind putting them on. Sometimes they’re useful for adding features where it would be impossible to create with bricks. Plus the stickers nowadays are far better than the dreaded “STickers Across Multiple PartS” so prevalent in the 90s. ????

    Even though I prefer printed parts, I appreciate Mr. Stafford explaining that stickers are not really about cost-cutting but conserving space in a finite warehouse, and for that reason my opinion of stickers has softened a little more.

  18. Peter C

    I’ve just built the space shuttle and it WAS a pain having to apply them. 3x stickers (2x small, 1x big) per panel and 8x panels to make up the bay doors. At least the solar panels for the accompanying Hubble telescope were printed (and on the ISS too).

  19. Sylca

    For a particular model, print all parts that have to be printed, put them in a litlle plastic bag, and put these bags in the P-box. The combination of these parts are only for 1 set, indeed, but it will save P-boxes. And when assembling the whole set, all these printed parts will be taken by the robot at once, saving assembly time and lowering the error risk. Moreover, these printed parts will be separated from other parts (via the plastic bag -or paper bag, so-so) which will reduce the risk of being scratched.
    It’s so simple that I guess there are other reason why it’s not applied…

  20. cydream

    What I like with stickers, is that you can remove (or not use it), unless prited parts . This is more versatile when you reuse parts.

  21. Kactus

    The only time I truly hated stickers was when they went through a phase where a single sticker would be stuck over multiple bricks. It means you can never fully pull apart a model again.

  22. B.J. Keeton

    Yeah, as someone new to LEGO, I was curious about the number of stickers that were coming with my sets. Mainly because I am terrible at attaching them. But this makes a ton of sense, so I appreciate you putting this up for folks like me.

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