Rapid Prototyping Nuts

By Sean Gallagher  |  Posted 2003-12-01 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.

& Bolts"> Rapid Prototyping Nuts & Bolts

Leading the push for speedier product development are a pair of polar opposites. Harland, a petite, athletic woman who runs marathons, first studied design in college and then switched to engineering. Fish, who towers over Harland, started out as an engineering student. A college adviser pushed him into industrial design instead.

Both hail from northeast Ohio, and both ended up at Little Tikes right out of college under similar circumstances. "My mom found an ad in the paper," says Fish. Harland was also led to the company by the help-wanted ads. She says she was already resigned to a boring job somewhere else.

Now, with rapid prototypying, neither has time to get bored.

Each product team's efforts are captured in Microsoft Office documents, such as Excel worksheets. For the most part, product engineers, designers, sales representatives, marketers and manufacturing engineers are blissfully unaware of what goes on behind the scenes.

The glue that holds the document flow of each project together is a collaborative online mechanism known as Microsoft SharePoint, says Christopher Fuss, Little Tikes' manager of information services. Each document generated by a product team is stored centrally on the SharePoint server; each revision is annotated. Everyone on the product team has access to the information, either from Office or from a Web browser.

The first document shared by each project team is called the Concept Evaluation and Objectives form. "It spells out what our expectations for the product are," says Harland. The form includes everything from the general category the product will fall into and the features it will have to the expected profitability of the product based on market research.

Designers then brainstorm on ways to meet goals for the product. "We have to come up with 10, maybe 20 initial concepts [for a toy]," says Harland. Designers work in a variety of tools, including ProEngineer CAD, Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia FreeHand. The result is a digital rendering of each concept, and a full-size sculpted model of the toy in foam. "The foam model helps us understand the true scale of the product," Harland explains.

As the project progresses, it is tracked on the Project Data Review form, a shared Excel spreadsheet updated monthly with the status of each element of the project. This form is also stored in SharePoint so that it can be accessed by project members through a Web browser at any time. That means that Little Tikes' Hong Kong staff can access and edit the document as well without having to have a direct connection to Little Tikes' corporate network—and they can add information on progress with projects outsourced to engineering and manufacturing companies in Asia.

While about a third of Little Tikes' model work is now done in China, work involving a process known as rotomolding remains an expertise of U.S. operations. Rotomolding, in which the plastic molds are rotated on two axes while being heated, is the process used to create Little Tikes' play furniture, playground equipment and ride-on toys such as the Cozy Coupe and the "Rocking Puppy," a replacement for the company's rocking horse for toddlers.

For products modeled in Hudson, the technical center engineers create a set of digital drawings for each concept. Some, like the Rocking Puppy, are fairly straightforward and low-tech—it has a one-piece, rotomolded blue body, cloth ears and an injection-molded black nose. But increasingly, the technical center is called upon to develop electronics to drive toys, everything from electronic sound-effects systems to power systems for motorized toys.

Bringing in electronics expertise is a recent development. "We had never really gone down that road, and didn't have that kind of expertise in-house," Harland says. But using outsiders slowed down the prototyping process.

That changed with the hiring of Steve Smith, an electronics engineer from Motorola. Smith used his training in high-quality Six Sigma production techniques at the mobile phone manufacturer to help Little Tikes build a reliable supply chain for electrical and electronic components.

Small plastic parts are manufactured using stereo lithography. Other, larger parts for models may be adapted from existing parts in Little Tikes' inventory, or created in wood or foam by a computer-controlled modeling machine. These parts can be smoothed and finished by hand. Later, the same machines can generate wooden models that will be sent to foundries to create aluminum molds for Little Tikes' manufacturing plants.

As testing is conducted, the engineers collect final cost estimates. To get price quotes on such things as moving parts, electrical components, and other parts that are more efficiently by external suppliers, digital drawings are uploaded to a "drop box.'' Suppliers can download the files and respond with price quotes.

This automation has done more than improve the time-to-market for Little Tikes' normal product cycles. It's also creating new opportunities for the company to react quickly to demands from its big customers, such as Toys "R" Us and Wal-Mart.

It also means that if a new fad in the toy world shows up, Little Tikes has a better chance of meeting the demand in time. "You never know when rush projects are going to pop up," Harland says. "There's no guarantee that we're going to get those, but we've got to at least give it a shot."

Those are shots Little Tikes couldn't make before. But the company's adoption of rapid prototyping technology has put it in the sandbox with the big kids of the business—and Loretta Harland's crew may just steal their lunch money.

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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