Lego-compatible thesis project board

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1 Introduction

I designed the thesis project board as a physical visualization tool that will help folks with both planning and monitoring a Master or PHD thesis. It also is a social tool, i.e. on display in an office or a living room it will show others where your are. Conceptual issues that are emerging from the pilots are described and discussed in the Using a thesis project board article.

This page is used for two purposes:

  • Provide a technical overview of various designs
  • Provide some technical information for folks who want to create their own.

1.1 Initial design

The initially (end of 2012) thesis project board had three components:

1. A task list (made of lettered Lego bricks) that should include all major tasks, such as getting in a program, finding an adviser and an advisory board, writing the research plan and having it accepted, literature review, data collection, data analysis, requirements, development, etc. Configuration of this list depends on the field, the nature of the thesis and the institution.

2. An issue list - again made with lettered Lego bricks - that should include each major problem that pops up or that is known right from the start. For example: lacking skills (e.g. in data analysis or programming), writer's block, tendency to procastinate, time left after getting other important work done, doubts about the future, access to data, difficult advisors, ....

3. A text list that simply lists the various chapters.

Monitoring chapter writing and the task list are different views of the "problem" although some items strongly correlate. E.g. the literature review could start in the thesis project plan, in a wiki and then be spread out over chapters 1-3.

Each list is built with special-purpose lettered Lego bricks. Print the ones that you need. Next to each item the candidate then should build towers using standard bricks and that represent its state. Next to both task and chapter items, there is a slot for a 2x2 column that will measure advancement. I suggest to use 5 standard 2x2 blocks, each representing 20%. Once you reached 100%, these towers can be replaced by a special "smilie" tower. The issue items are associated with two columns, one that measures severeness and the other progress (problem resolution).

Bricks could be printed with different colors according to type. Lego blocks that represent advanced can use any color, but monochrome is nicer. Since Legos are very expensive, you may try to buy these from second hand stores or on online web sites. Of course, you also could print these, but that takes time.

1.2 Current design

Currently (start of 2013), we believe that users should create their own "language", although it could be negotiated with a thesis adviser. Read more in using a thesis project board.

Specially printed custom bricks still appear to be useful, but in addition:

  • If there is enough space, students should work with a large board
  • Students should be provided with a large library of non-standard bricks or even "weird" objects they can re-purposed, e.g. bricks for building housing structures, persona, etc.
  • Since 3D printing takes time, one should buy a large set of colored 4x2, 2x2 and 3x3 flat tiles that can be labelled with a felt pen.

2 Current status, questions and plans

The following list is just meant to write down a few "to do" items. Also read Using a thesis project board.

1) I tried to figure out a "good size". The board should be both visible and at the same time not take up too much space. I.e. a person should find space on his/her desk.

2) There are not enough task and issue bricks. Which ones are missing ?

3) Bricks are fairly ugly. Is there a way to do better ? I also am aware that lettering is pretty ugly using 0.25 layers, maybe I should try other fonts. Designing lots of meaningful 3D icons is beyond my skills. Input with respect to that also would be welcome.

4) Is the three lists design (tasks, issues and chapters) ok for starters, or is there some fundamental category I missed. That being said, participants at some point should come up with their own language.

5) How high should the towers measuring progress should be ? I believe 5 x a standard brick height should be ok. 10% steps could be displayed with 2x1 bricks

6) Should there be a repository for bricks ? E.g. a big wall around the board or a specially designed area. I am afraid the people will not keep/find a box with enough Legos nearby...

7) Is it really necessary to design a custom board that takes time to print ? A standard Lego board could be the favorite solution. That's what one of our PhD students told me after showing him the two on day two of printing. The answer as of 2013 was no. Custom boards inhibit creativity.

8) Should I create a DUPLO version of the bricks ? Would take much more space, but the lettering would be much nicer and I could even add some icons.

9) I should expand this idea for managing other projects, e.g. research projects or development and design projects. This also would imply that I should figure out how to visualize agile ways of planning.

10) I should create 3D structures for hosting the bricks, e.g. with some sort of stackable objects like in the castle kits. This would save office space and maybe allow to present sub-projects.

3 Board plates

3.1 Variant 0

Don't print anything at all.

  • Buy a Lego board (like the blue one below)
  • Buy flat smooth pieces and label these with a felt pen. Such sets can be found on amazon.de for example. Search terms:
"Lego Fliesen" (german) ... On Amazon.de, several hits. A few have good size
"Smooth Lego tile" (US) ... there was only one hit on Amazon.com
  • This variant is being tested by user 3 (starting on feb 2013)

3.2 variant 1

Buy a Lego board, a smaller blue one can do for starters ...

3.2.1 Variant a

Configure the board like in the picture that shows a blue plate. I.e. print all bricks that start with "board" to make it look like a thesis project board. So far, after a few month of initial user feedback, this seems to be the best solution since it allow user to be creative and to get engaged in some play that could help some sort of "bonding" to this tool.

Thesis lettering blocks for standard Lego board
Thesis board using a Lego board

Users 1 and 2 started using this approach (see below).

3.3 Variant 1b

Buy a Lego board and do whatever you like, i.e. define the purpose of the board and then let a "language" emerge that is meaningful with respect to the purpose. After a a few weeks or month, pilot users seem to move into this direction...

In other words, version 2 below is not needed ! (2013/2014)

3.4 variant 2

Uses a neat (sorry) just the right size for you desk. Time-consuming to print and impossible (I'd say) on non-PLA capable printers. Inhibits play which may be a good reason for not using this. After a few month into the experience (on feb 2013), we believe it to be an uninteresting solution. However, such boards may turn out to be useful in other, more formal contexts.

Thesis project board, version 1

Below is my first print together with a first version of tasks, issues and chapter blocks

Thesis project board, version 1

The next picture shows a slightly bigger one, printed with a less threatening color

Thesis project board, version 2

Note: Chapter blocks are uglier than usual in this picture since the blocks were at Z=0.5mm and the letters were stuck in the top floor of the block. Took me some time to figure this one out since Repetier host just drops the pieces down.

3.5 Variant 3

is true 3D, i.e. a series of stackable towers, each representing a task or issues area. However, it will take me some time to figure out stuff that makes sense. Stay tuned - Daniel K. Schneider 25 Oct 2012. So far, we didn't come up with anything of interest (Daniel K. Schneider (talk) 12:22, 26 February 2013 (CET)).

The following tower_data_1 would be still too much 2D, but may nevertheless be a trail to pursue:

Data tower: Progress for data collection, analysis, interpretation as well as mastery of tools and methods

3.6 Variant 3b

The next item is a configurable variant called tower_central

Data tower: Progress for tasks or chapters. Once your tower is square your are done. Progress indicators use 2x1 bricks

3.7 Variant 3c

The next item is a combination of a general purpose tower that can held 4 slots and a fixed removable cover. You are done after filling each column. Btw, the example is about a 3D printing project like this one and not about a thesis. It could represent its R&D part though.

Design tower with 4 tasks: Develop and refine ideas, model, print and test with users

3.8 Variant 4

The next item is a tower that can host task bricks in front.

  • Progress then is indicated by tiling. Once you got a smooth floor you are done with a task.
  • These towers can be stacked
Stackable tower element. Configure as you wish. Use 10 2x2 flat tiles for progress indication
  • On top you can put a nice roof so that people know what it is good for.
Stackable tower element with roof. Configure as you wish

Below is picture of the first print (printed at fairly high speed)

Stackable tower element with roof, small example

3.9 New variant/version ideas

Under brainstorming.

1) I am thinking about creating a tree. I.e. something that can grow upwards with branches and "leafs". Each leaf then would represent an element (task, problem, etc.) and space for adding progress/problem indicators. DUPLO has such elements if I recall right.

2) Transfer the idea to other project types, e.g. a SCRUM-like board or structure

3) More space and more elements for play !!

4 Bricks

This section describes some of the printable bricks we designed and that can be used on either standard or printed Lego boards.

4.1 Task bricks

12 so far, let me know if you need others.

Task brick set 1 (first version)

4.2 Issue bricks

9 so far, let me know if you need others.

Issue brick set 1 (first version)

Below, some pictures of items that can become problems....

Issue brick set 1 - Some prints

4.3 Chapter bricks

9 so far. That should be enough. Keep the size of your thesis down. Your advisors and jury will be grateful.

Chapters brick set (first version)

4.4 Buying 2x2 and smooth Legos

Since you will need lots of 2x2 Legos for the progress indicators, I suggest that you search on the Internet for packs. I suggest Amazon.de (not .com or .fr or co.uk). The same is true for the "version 0", i.e. write with a pen on smooth pieces.

Amazon.de has resellers that will provide these in packs of 50 for about 9 Euros. In particular, "Wichtel10000" has a few million bricks in his inventory and you can make personal enquiries, e.g. he got lots of 2x2 standard bricks and 4x2 smooth bricks. Basically, I can tell him roughly what I need, he answers with a list of what he has got and then makes a precise offer for a precise list - Daniel K. Schneider (talk) 21:01, 28 February 2013 (CET).

Amazon.com sells 100 blocks for $19

Search terms:

  • German: "2x2 noppen" Lego
  • English: lego "2x2 bricks"

5 Getting the bricks

5.1 Download

Download from Thingiverse:

http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:33001

5.2 File names

I only included a subset of bricks as single STLs for now. However:

  • STL.zip contains all the blocks
  • STL-sets.zip include multiple bricks for printing (difficult)
  • source.zip contains all the source, including netfabb files and openscad code

6 Printing tips

6.1 General

Printing Lego bricks is a bit more difficult than it may seem.

  • You do need a 0.25mm layer-capable printer, and that it includes corresponding x/y precision
  • The first layer must stick to the print bed. Therefore it must be totally flat and aligned with the nozzle. In addition, the nozzle must be close (1 sheet of paper)
  • Printing with ABS probably requires a heated print bed since the walls will try to warp upwards. A heated print-bed is better for PLA printing too.
  • The bottom side of the roofs will likely be ugly and there is not much I could do (except creating a design that doesn't look like Lego bricks)
  • Turn the fan off while printing the platform until the first layer of the roof is done. Any hard little piece that sticks out can cause the nozzle to become stuck a bit and then rip off something or displace the next layer. Printing platforms is a challenge, only attempt if your filament is high quality and printer has a really flat and well calibrated printbed.

6.2 Slicer settings

  • First layer must be real slow: 12 mm/s
  • 0.25 layers or less for better quality
  • Other layers: 40 mm/s or much higher for less good quality

You may use manual overrides for printing walls (you can go fast there) and then slow down again for the lettering and nibbles.

If you want to produce nice letters:

  • Use 0.1 layers. If your slicer can do half layers in certain regions (e.g. Netfabb) use this feature. In Skeinforge and SFACT, I suggest using 0.25 layers and the use SKIN (1/2 horizontal and vertical layers).
  • With 0.25 layers, letters are readable, but not as pretty ...

6.3 Fit

Calibrating OpenScad (or any CAD model of course) for the right fit is a nightmare. Nibble, inset and wall sizes depend on many parameters like: Layer size (obvious), spread, Type of plastic (black PLA is fatter than transparent PLA), print speed (believe me), etc.

The only way to get it right is to print a simple 2x4, then adjust parameters in OpenScad and generate all the blocks again. Use the source.zip for that. An anecdote: The black board (version 1, see above) has perfect fit. The orange one (version 2, see above) is a bit loose. The only difference in slicer settings was fill and anti-stringing. Both were printed at same speed (0.25 layers, 80mm/s for the fills and 35 for the perimeters). The orange had a bit less retraction (i.e. result should be worse but wasn't) and 35% fill as opposed to more standard 25% fill. In other words, the black probably one has better fit since lower fill produces worse quality of roofs. There also could be some difference in the plastic that creates sloppier results. Btw. the orange board took about 9h to print.

6.4 Problems

  • Ugly overhangs underneath the lego roofs: ignore
  • Bumps when printing the roof of the big base plate: Slow down and turn off the fan until it looks flat again. This also can happen in the first layer after printing the little squares. Anyhow I suggest printing flat structures without fan. If there is something sticking out, the nozzle will slide through if the plastic is still somewhat warm...
  • Little squares or Lego nibbles not sticking to the first layer: Nozzle must be real close in every location, slow down, heat up. Repair strategy if one comes loose. Instead of aborting a print, you can attempt to glue it back, e.g. put the thing in position and use a blow torch directly on the print bed (if it is made of metal !). Removing the piece, heating it and putting it back doesn't work as well. Tip: Kapton tape easily can take heat.
  • Ugly lettering: reduce speed and/or reduce layer height (or work with half-layers if your slicer let's you define regions)
  • Unexplained no "filament comes out": Check your filament. If it is too thin in places it will hate the frequent retractions that a typical slicer configuration will create for Legos. You also can reduce anti-stringing/oozing measures. Strings don't matter in this project. Just burn them away. If the filament is too thick in some places (e.g. 2.1mm instead of 1.75 or 3.5 instead of 3, buy new filament.
  • When printing several pieces, it often happens that one is ripped off. Stop the printer and glue it to the platform using "reusable adhesive gum" for example. You also can melt it down with a blow torch. In this case, the piece will likely be lost, but at the least the printer can go on ....

In the picture above with the black board you can see really ugly chapter bricks. These are explained by the fact that I changed a piece in the z-axis and I forgot to place a bolt in the right place. Anyhow, printing perfect lettering with 0.25 layer-width won't work. But I just hate waiting for too long and also printing with 0.1 layers creates other problems, in particular with roofs.

6.5 Printing batches

I never managed to print larger batches correctly and get two issues

(1) Some blocks can warp sometimes. I don't understand why since I can print larger surfaces on the printer without warping. Maybe the print head banging a tiny bit into bricks ? Maybe some dirt in the area. I just don't know

Two warped bricks (front left)

(2) 1-2 Lego cylinders may come off after the first few layers

There are 3 solutions

  • Ignore, but the risk is that this could propagate, i.e. the whole brick can be ripped away
  • Restart
  • Add a patch. Instead of throwing away print aborts, keep these. Then when a cylinder gets ripped off, take it away. Add a some square piece of about the same height in the area, then with a blow torch melt it to the platform.
Patch

7 Do it yourself

7.1 Creating different boards

Start from the openscad files to generate your own boards. Use Netfabb or some other software for on-board lettering.

7.2 Lettering on top of blank blocks

Use netfabb files for lettering. Read the Netfabb Studio tutorial

Download a block or generate one with OpenScad. (http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:33001 - File STL.zip)

Set of blank bricks for lettering

Lettering can be done with other software, but I found Netfabb to be the easiest tool. However, if you don't own the expensive Studio version, you will have to proceed in the following way in order to get a single printable STL:

  • Load an appropriate flat lego brick into netfabb. Found in the directory STL/blank_bricks
  • Do the lettering: Use 72pts and about 10mm height and 2mm depth
  • Position the lettering in the right place. To adjust x/x, make sure to position the camera in "Top View". Then use the positioning popup for the Z-axis, e.g. move it up by 9.6mm.
  • Adjust dimensions, Make sure to keep Z as is.
  • Export the lettering (1 or 2 STLs)
  • Import all these STLs to Meshlab
  • Import all the meshes (block and letterings): Menu file->Import Mesh
  • (Do not attempt to position anything with Meshlab. It's too hard. Use Netfabb)
  • Menu Filters->Layer and Attribute Management->Flatten Visible Layers
  • File->Export Mesh as

Again, read Netfabb Studio tutorial for some introduction. You also can have a look at Meshlab for RapMan tutorial

7.3 Post processing

The most important tools you need are in that order: A mini gaz torch, a flat file and a heat gun. Read Post processing of 3D polymer prints for details.

  • Blow away little strings with the torch, but stay away and flame quickly ! I strongly suggest to use the protection since it will direct the heat and also make sure that you keep some distance.
  • If some corners or roofs stick out horizontally, you can file these. After that, use the flamer again to restore good looks.
  • If fit is a problem, heat the piece underneath with either the flamer or (better) the heat gun (around 120 degrees C for PLA). Then, gently (!) press it down on the board.

8 Links

8.1 EduTechWiki links

8.2 Using Lego in project management and similar

Links and publications are indexed in other pages, see:

9 Bibliography