In 2000, Lego was named by the British Association of Toy Retailers (BATR) as the Toy of the Century, weathering almost 50 years of change to remain a generational constant. Today, the toy has gone from simple Danish block box to nearly bankrupt to a multi-billion dollar industry, embracing everything from clothing to merchandise to movies. Now the toy has found a remarkable new function beyond the confines of a child’s playroom (or, let’s be real, an adult’s coffee table). A group of scientists at MIT have found a way to use the beloved Danish toy as a tool in actual biomedical research.
In a paper published in biomedical journal Lab on a Chip, researchers claim to have used Lego to build any kind of microfluidic laboratory in a matter of minutes. For those who are not too familiar with biomedical terminology, microfluidics are the basis for microbiological research devices, powering items used for DNA analysis, cell behavior, broader molecular biology research, and much more.
Lego’s Research History
This isn’t the first time that scientists have successfully used Lego blocks in their research. In 2014, researchers at Iowa University used transparent Lego blocks to contain gel and various types of soil in a test on plant growth environments. Lego pieces were valuable in this experiment due to the hyper-precise manufacturing policy of Lego, where all pieces are cut to be geometrically identical to make sure that the pieces are uniform and can therefore snap into place.
The MIT research team used micro-milling techniques (the quick prototyping of devices used to study microfluids) to carefully “draw” the 500-micron-wide channels that the fluids are meant to flow through. They did so using Lego as a conduit, meaning that the channels were carved into the Lego blocks themselves. These small lines, sealed with a transparent adhesive after being drawn, were then carefully laid out in order for each brick channel to align perfectly with the next. This process allowed scientists to easily design and run a microfluidic laboratory from anywhere, streamlining a process that had previously ratcheted up costs in terms of both time and money. By cutting out expensive custom prototyping and manufacturing methods, the scientists were able to lean on Lego’s own hyper-consistent product design, which in its own way is methodical to the point of scientific exactitudes.
A Perfect Fit
The paper is a huge inspiration for research teams looking to cut down on costs and time, but it is ultimately a celebration of Lego’s ability to survive over a century of change. The company’s precise manufacturing standards mentioned above make them a perfect asset for an industry that values consistency above all else.
Lego blocks are made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), which is a hard plastic that is injected inside custom-made molds and machines. The company historically has a very low margin of error when it comes to design, meaning that the molds are retooled after extremely short periods of time to maintain accuracy on a mass distribution level. Over time molds can loosen, and without changing the molds—which many toy companies don’t do due to high cost—loosened groves or accidental indentations can be replicated and mass produced. As a result, Lego pieces are often considered about as perfect as can be, with pieces and entire shapes being discarded when the original molds can no longer be retooled. For every million pieces, only 18 elements ever fail to meet the company’s manufacturing standards. Not bad for a toy coming up to its 70th anniversary.
The MIT scientists were quick to explain that not every experiment can use Lego blocks, and that not every Lego block can be used (they tend to lean on the translucent pieces, which are often lighter and have fewer variables to take into consideration, such as paint). Some fluids that the scientists test react badly to the ABS plastic injections Lego uses, but their ubiquity and consistency make them the perfect tool to work with, proving that they can serve as building blocks for science as well as for the imagination.