Santa's Helper

By Sean Gallagher Print this article Print

The toymaker managed to get new products to store shelves. Problem was, some 40% were duds. How the company got its act together with the help of early prototyping.

Toymaker Little Tikes always got new products onto store shelves. But many weren't ending up under the Christmas tree. Earlier prototyping changed that.

Matt Smith got an introduction to performing under pressure in October. The University of Toledo engineering student, working with The Little Tikes toy company in a cooperative-learning program, was asked to quickly repair a prototype toy truck broken during a demonstration. At stake: Putting it through its paces for a major retailer, who might buy it for national distribution.

"A customer chewed on it, and then dropped it," says Loretta Harland, Little Tikes' vice president of product development, referring to a toy buyer who thoroughly inspected the foot-long truck. "It was supposed to have soft tires so he decided to check them with his teeth."

Little Tikes had created the model using a technology called stereo lithography. The technique allows the toy manufacturer to swiftly transform designs that its engineers draw on computer screens into full-sized versions of the toys. Layers of liquid plastic "toner" are fused together to create parts that can be quickly assembled into a "finished" product or, to make rubber molds for creating colored or soft plastic copies.

Two-and-a-half-years ago, Little Tikes could not show off a toy until six months before it hit the shelves. The company now demonstrates what the product is supposed to look like as much as a year ahead of time using stereo lithography. The difference, according to Little Tikes president Rory Leyden, is that only 60% of new products used to meet the company's profit projections. Now, two-and-a-half years later, the success rate is 96%.

The truck unveiled in October at the Fall Mass Market Toy Expo in New York is supposed to be an addition to the company's popular Rugged Riggz lineup of children's toys. It may have been small, but to Harland and her product team, that model represented a fleet of Hummers' worth of future business.

Little Tikes' core business has long been nearly indestructible outdoor-play products. These include such perennial sellers as its iconic Cozy Coupe toddler-powered car and brightly-colored plastic playground sets. About three years ago, the division of home-products giant Newell Rubbermaid aggressively expanded efforts to get into the "small-box" toy business: products easily wrapped and put under the Christmas tree.

Little Tikes' attempts to create successful new toys for infants and toddlers hit roadblocks. Products would be rushed to market—and too many were rejected, by either retailers or consumers. In fact, at the time Leyden came on board, two out of every five new products failed.

Here's what had been happening: Retailers had to make the decision to buy a product line based on glimpses during a product show of rough models sculpted from insulation foam and other lightweight materials. In some cases, they would just rely on a picture of the proposed toy—even if the finished product would appeal to senses other than sight alone. "If a toy was going to have electronics with sounds," says Harland, "we'd have to ask the buyer to imagine how it would sound," or listen to a tape of the audio.

Starting in 2001, Harland and Tom Fish, manager of Little Tikes' research-and-development technical center, pushed forward a plan to use rapid-prototyping technologies for product development.

Now, with the combination of computerized design and instant plastic parts, Little Tikes' product teams can deliver fully working models of toy concepts in weeks instead of months. Little Tikes developers creates three-dimensional drawings using design software, called ProEngineer, from Needham, Mass.-based vendor PTC. This is the same software used by Toyota to design adult-sized vehicles. These drawings are turned into digital files that then instruct a lithography machine at Little Tikes' technical center in Hudson, Ohio, what to produce on the spot.

The machine, from 3D Systems of Valencia, Calif., uses a liquid resin, which hardens when exposed to ultraviolet light. "This stuff costs about $800 a gallon," says Fish. The system builds parts in layers as thin as a thousandth of an inch, and can "draw" parts at a rate of up to 525 inches per second.

Proprietary software from 3D Systems converts the engineering drawings from ProEngineer into a set of instructions for the lithography machine, creating extra support structures to hold the prototype together as it is formed.

After they're printed, the parts are touched up, trimmed of excessive supporting material, and put under an ultraviolet lamp for further hardening. The company can take the parts produced, assemble them and show them off, or create molds around them, for quick, low-volume production of multiple copies. The pieces can be painted for better representation of what the final product will look like, or cast in silicon rubber to make copies in colored urethane.

Models like the truck shown at the Toy Expo can be shown more quickly to retailers—and tested by the target market, children. This lets Little Tikes' engineers identify potential problems with products—like common breakage points in the product, or features that children have difficulty with. "It reduces the chance we're going to end up with a recall. We can catch any ergonomic problems,'' says Harland. "With rocking toys, for example, it's hard to tell where the tipping point is before you have it in plastic and put a child on it."

Now, according to Leyden, the company has "reduced product-development time by about 25%." The result has been what the Little Tikes president describes as a double-digit percentage growth in sales of his company's infant and toddler toys.

This article was originally published on 2003-12-01
Sean Gallagher is editor of Ziff Davis Internet's enterprise verticals group. Previously, Gallagher was technology editor for Baseline, before joining Ziff Davis, he was editorial director of Fawcette Technical Publications' enterprise developer publications group, and the Labs managing editor of CMP's InformationWeek. A former naval officer and former systems integrator, Gallagher lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland.
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