LDraw: free LEGO CAD software!

I am student-teaching in a high school robotics class right now, and this week we began assembling the LEGO NXT robots we will be using for the rest of our work this semester.  I found it fascinating how varied the students’ abilities were when it came to assembling the robots from the included instructions.  I grew up with more LEGOs than most people ever see in a lifetime, and I guess it really helped me develop my spatial reasoning.  Other students have not been so lucky.  I began thinking that using LEGO would be a low-cost way to improve student spatial reasoning in other types of classes including drafting and CAD classes, which typically require expensive software and are not explicitly connected to building the models students construct virtually.  Enter LDraw, an “open standard for LEGO CAD programs that allow the user to create virtual LEGO models and scenes”.

According the LDraw website:  “the term ‘LDraw’ can be used to refer to the original DOS based LDraw program, the LDraw parts library, the LDraw file format or the LDraw System Of Tools.”  LDraw itself consists of a standard that includes a file format for LEGO brick parts and methods that CAD editors may use to read, write, and manipulate these parts.  There are several LDraw-compatible editors available, but a visit to the LDraw site led me to MLCad, the most popular editor.  Users can also download and install Pov-Ray if they wish to render 3-dimensional images of their CAD drawings.  I have used Pov-Ray before, so this is no big deal, but be advised that the learning curve on Pov-Ray can be steep.  I would advise new users download the free All-In-One LDraw installer, which includes the parts library, the editor, a viewer, and LPub, which allows students to make LEGO-like instruction manuals like those you get in traditional LEGO kits.  Below is a screenshot from my early play with MLCad.  I am quite impressed with the quality of the editor as well as its functionality.

MLCad screenshot

A screenshot of the MLCad editor used to make LEGO CAD drawings.

I think this is a great tool to allow full-cycle engineering education, from concept to CAD drawing to execution.  It would really allow students to experience a full design cycle and to iterate and optimize their designs.  LDraw also has good tutorials that allow students or teachers to step through how to learn and use the software.  All in all, I give this 5 stars for usability and ease of access.

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