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Can Lego get ahead of the 3D printing bandwagon?

The maker of fit-together blocks and figurines is taking a good look at 3D printing, according to a story in Sunday’s Financial Times.

The company has diligently tried to keep up with digital challenges. But 3D printing represents a new existential threat — the threat of personalized manufacturing.

So the company is apparently trying to follow the key lesson in this age of evaporating competitive advantages: If someone is going to eat your lunch, it best be you.

Lego needs to evolve faster because its customers are. Independent services like, for instance, already offer customized minifigurines from Lego parts.

“It’s a pretty common problem,” the MiniFigs website relates. “You get further and further through life without even being represented as a single minifig.”

To eliminate this potential tragedy, MiniFigs customers can create their own from a menu of Lego components, or the site can build one based on a photo. Popular choices include Sochi Olympics heroes or horror figures like Chainsaw Dude. At some point, those Lego parts could be custom 3D printed.

Custom blocks are another obvious 3D printing target, as are, say, missing construction pieces.

Carnegie Mellon Professor Golan Levin, for instance, created a set of digital models to 3D print nearly four dozen plastic pieces that did not exist, but which could connect different kinds of toy construction sets. The objects were then released as a Free Universal Construction Kit.

But it’s not just missing construction pieces, figurines or blocks. Legos are the construction tools of choice for many do-it-yourselfers, some of whom use the iconic and versatile components to build — oh, the irony! — their own 3D printer.

Lego is trying to look at the bright side.

“It could well be,” Lego chief marketing office Mads Nipper told the Financial Times, that 3D printing “might be an exciting opportunity to print your own bricks.”

But if a 3D printer is available, printing may be the least challenging step. Shawn O’Grady, a digital fabrication specialist at the University of Michigan’s 3D Lab, pointed out to VentureBeat that “using the 3D printer is not the difficult part.” The trick, he noted, is the 3D model used to print a brick, a figurine, or an airplane part.

Some amateurs might find creating or modifying the digital model to be part of the fun. But O’Grady noted that a company like Lego could provide digital models to 3D print many more kinds of pieces than it could feasibly manufacture and distribute.

If 3D printing becomes common, what model of a modern company should Lego itself use? Maybe it’s the modern record company, which doesn’t actually create physical products anymore.

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