(Written by William)
For the past few years, I’ve been dipping my toes into what LEGO Technic has to offer. All the big LEGO Creator Fairground sets that I like so much have a heavy dose of gears, axles, and other working parts that really showcase what a well-engineered LEGO set is capable of. Combining this with my appreciation of the LEGO Creator Expert vehicles with their own advanced framing and play features, I knew I needed to check out a moderately sized LEGO Technic set.
When I first heard about the #42080 LEGO Technic Forest Machine back in 2018, I must admit I was intrigued. Along with its more unconventional design, the feature that really perked my interest was the fact that it had pneumatics. I had missed out on any previous set featuring air power, so I figured this would be sort of the deeper end of LEGO Technic. The price, on the other hand, made me keep my distance. But when the holidays rolled around, I tracked down a sale on the set and asked my wife to pick it up for me for Christmas.
Although building the LEGO Technic Forest Machine was not beyond my skill level, I must admit it was exhausting. Just imagine those moments when you’re building something and have no idea what it is until you’re near the end. It’s interesting, but could also be frustrating. Well, that frustration happened through most of the build for me. So much was foreign that I needed to take more breaks than normal before I finished. This by no means indicate that I think it’s a bad set. In fact, I feel prouder than normal that it all came together and works. I just want to point out that LEGO Technic sets take longer to build, and that your enjoyment will depend on how much you like or dislike suspension and surprises. But enough of the feels. The real question is, what can this set teach us?
WORKING WITH LEGO TECHNIC PNEUMATICS
The box of the #42080 LEGO Technic Forest Machine touted this set as using the 2.0 version of the LEGO Technic pneumatics system. Unfortunately, I can’t compare the old version to this as I never owned any of those sets, but suffice it to say, it’s not exactly what I imagined. For starters, you still use a basic rotary motor to power the pneumatics. This is connected to a fairly simple pump. It’s sort of like a pump you’d use to inflate a ball or bicycle tire, and it provides a constant positive air pressure that everything else works off of.
Another thing I didn’t expect is that the whole system must not be air tight. If it were, the air pressure would get so great, it would start blowing parts of the model all over the place. Additionally, it helps to have a bit of air pressure built up before the functions respond reliably. After starting, the pump delivers air to two valves at the front sides of the machine. These valves do not really move if they have no air pressure to work with. Each valve has three connections for hoses. One is used as an intake, which is the center connection. The other two are meant to form a closed circuit. This is where things can get a little fuzzy.
You see, all this air pressure still needs to be used. So far, we are only producing it and directing it. That’s where the additional pump/pistons come into play. Just like the initial pump that creates the air pressure, each pump/piston has two connection points for hoses. Depending on which way air blows into these, will determine whether the part expands or contracts. So if you connect hoses to each side of a valve, you can instruct the pump/piston in which direction it needs to go. However, figuring all this out amidst the various parts of the machine can be a bit tough to see. Especially when you’re trying to connect a hose in an awkward spot. Connecting hoses is the least fun thing about a pneumatic system. Hopefully though, this gives you a basic primer as to what you’re getting yourself into if you pursue pneumatics.
SIDE-TO-SIDE & INNER-OUT BUILDING WITH LEGO
Through the entire building process of the #42080 LEGO Technic Forest Machine, I kept wondering; why does all of this feel so foreign to me? Apart from the pneumatics parts and some specially shaped panels, I was familiar with most of the things I was working with. Yet the feeling that I was out of my element persisted. After a lot of thought, I came to the conclusion that this feeling has to do with the basic approach that LEGO Technic sets use in their design.
In a normal LEGO systems set, we often build bottom to top. Sure, there are some sideways building moments, but we simply need a foundation to work off of, and building bottom to top fulfills this need. In a LEGO Technic set, functionality is the primary goal. This means setting up the mechanisms to work right becomes the foundational building point. For this reason, it’s easier to figure out mechanisms by starting out from one side and then adding the other side on later. Much of what I worked on in this set made no sense to me since I was often constructing one side of the model, then balancing it out by assembling its other side.
To complicate matters, I was instructed to do this multiple times, so I’d not only be building side to side but from the inside out. This is a very odd way to conceptualize a design for those of us that mostly built with the standard LEGO system. And if all that wasn’t weird enough already, LEGO Technic also seems to prefer to use odd numbers in how things are built. In other words, you make a lot of things that are three or five beam widths wide. This, of course, allows gears to be centered, but it messes with your head when you’re used to making things four, six, or eight studs wide.
APPLYING WHAT YOU LEARN
It turns out that pneumatics is a mixed bag for me. On one hand, the effect that it produces looks amazing. There’s nothing quite like hearing the hiss of air and seeing things work. The problem for building something like this myself is all the special pieces needed. You may also find you have to buy longer hoses than you really need so that you can cut them down to their proper lengths. Honestly, pneumatics might be fun in an official set, but I’d leave it to the seasoned LEGO Technic builders to attempt building custom models.
As for changing your building perspective to fit the priorities of the LEGO Technic design, my suggestion is to prototype a mechanism first. Create whatever scaffolding you need to accommodate the elements you want to function. Chances are, this is exactly what you’ll need for the finished product anyways. Everything else is just securing the mechanism in place and making sure you’re not blocking any important moving parts.
I do want to point out, there are a ton of other techniques I didn’t mention in this article. The truth is, I want to expose myself to a bit more LEGO Technic building style sets before I feel comfortable discussing these features. I can’t be certain if they were just an anomaly in this set, or if they’re standard practice. But I’m pretty sure this won’t be the last LEGO Technic set I try out! In the vide below, I will share a few more thoughts about the set.
What do you think? Do you have any LEGO Technic sets with pneumatic functions? How do you like them? And what do you think about building with LEGO Technic in general? Feel free to share your thoughts and discuss in the comment section below!
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