Lego developers used two different 3D-modelling software programs to design the Coast Guard helicopter set. ((Lego))

In trying to answer the age-old question of how humanity came to be, the debate often boils down to an argument between evolution and creationism. Was it a long, drawn-out process that saw single-celled organisms eventually develop into people, or was it the result of a spontaneous burst of creation by a greater power?

In the world of Lego, however, there is no debate. The plastic play sets just appear magically on store shelves — an obvious act of some benevolent creator — waiting to be built.

The reality is, there is much evolution behind bringing everyone's favourite building blocks from the concept stage to store shelves, and it is a process aided significantly by some sophisticated technology.

Take the new Lego City Coast Guard Helicopter kit, released in May. The set, which features a copter with winding winch, a life raft, an injured boater and even a hungry shark, started as an idea in a developer's mind.

Karsten Juel Bunch, senior designer and creative lead for the Danish company's City line of products, says his team of 20 took that idea and drew on many influences to come up with the helicopter's eventual design, as well as the other Coast Guard kits.

The team looked at picture databases and watched many movies to come up with sketches that detailed the common features of coast guard helicopters, such as the wide body, colour scheme, multiple rotor blades and emergency signal lights.

From there, the designers sat down to the fun part of their task — actually building the helicopter by playing with the thousands of Lego pieces at their disposal, a job many adult kids-at-heart would be envious of.

While it would have been possible to allow a computer database to automatically design the vehicle — or any other model, for that matter — by sorting through the Lego pieces on file, human touch was a vital part of the process, Bunch says.

Lego facts
  • Lego is formed from the Danish words "leg" and "godt," meaning "play well."
  • There are about 62 Lego bricks for every person on the planet.
  • 36,000 Lego elements are produced every minute.
  • Lego is the world's largest maker of vehicle tires, producing 306 million a year.

"The problem is you have to make it into a building experience for the child. It's not just about having a fire truck, it's about building the fire truck," he says. "The only way you can get a good building experience is by building the model."

Once a few test models are built, the low-tech approach is usually supplemented with some technological interaction. Whenever designers find they need a piece that does not exist, they use Rhinocerous, a three-dimensional modelling application designed by Seattle-based software firm McNeel North America, to create the missing element. The new design is then sent down to the Lego workshop, which has a finished piece ready by the next morning.

Software also plays a key role in the most important part of a Lego set: its pricing. The City designers use Maya, another 3D modelling application from Mill Valley, Calif.-based Autodesk Inc., to look at the various pricing configurations of their products.

When a kit is programmed into Maya, the software displays its total cost by adding up the price of each individual Lego piece used. The software is invaluable for developers, Bunch says, because it allows them to see whether a kit falls within their desired price range. Product lines such as Coast Guard ideally have kits at low, medium and high price points, so Maya can tell designers whether they need to cut the number of pieces from a certain build or go back to the drawing board if the design is too expensive.

Once the pricing is set, the kits go through the most rigorous part of the process: testing by children. Lego uses test groups of four to six children of various age groups, usually in the United States and Germany, to appraise their products.

"It's pretty obvious to see which models are working and which ones aren't," Bunch says.

When the kits are priced correctly and have passed their child focus-group screening, they are finally shipped off to store shelves.

A typical Lego set is thus the hybrid product of human tinkering and computerized automation — a carefully engineered evolution rather than a spontaneous creation. That's probably a good thing, because in the world of Lego, there is no room for religious debate.

"Lego City is a nice place to be, everybody is happy," Bunch says. "There is no violence, no politics and no religion in Lego City."