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Any parent will tell you most kids’ toys are short-lasting fads. They get played with once or twice, the children get bored, and then the toys are thrown away, and the kids demand something new.
But there is one toy which has been a children’s favourite for over fifty years – LEGO.
LEGO is so popular. There are now 62 bricks for every one of the 6 billion people on Earth. That’s enough for everyone to build themselves a small LEGO house, or if we all join forces, construct 10 towers, each of which would reach the Moon.
To satisfy our demand for these little plastic bricks every year LEGO need to make two more for everyone on the planet. So, how do they do it?
Billund, West Denmark. It’s 8 a.m. and a senior designer Henrik Andersen is arriving for work at the LEGO factory. Henrik is one of 120 designers based around the world whose job it is to make sure LEGO keep up-to-date with the latest trends.
Because whilst you can still buy a bag of the basic building blocks, most LEGO is now sold as part of specially designed kits. To come up with ideas for new kits, grown-up children as Henrick get to undertake one of the toughest jobs imaginable – spending all day in a white room playing with LEGO.
‘This room, it is… inspirational room to all. We can come here and clear our mind, and maybe go for brainstorm. There’s nothing in here that you can look at, it’s all white, so… so you open your mind to… to other new ideas.’
What the white room has inspired Henrick to come up with is – a model train. He is trying to create something that doesn’t just look really cool, but which would also fire children’s imagination when they play with it.
‘We start up researching the Internet and the real world, what the trains look like, what the kids like…, and then we start deciding what kind of trains we wanna do.’
Henrik’s design is based on the high speed French TGV and German ICE trains.
‘We sort of combined them and started to do sketches for the front of the train.’
Most of Henrik’s train is designed so that it uses standard LEGO pieces. But to get the front of the train looking just like they need a specially made piece. But, instead of turning to a computer, Henrik uses more traditional techniques.
‘Sometimes we do the old-fashioned way when we go to our proto-type room and we cut… cut it off from … foam or wood. This is a primase so it will fit on a LEGO brick then raughly I just file it out of a piece of foam.’
Once Henrik is happy with how everything is looking, they cast a prototype of the new piece. And after a few further refinements the kit is ready to go into production.
But LEGO haven’t always made little plastic building blocks. The business was begun back in 1932 by a carpenter called Ole Kirk Christiansen. Back then he was making wooden step ladders, stools, ironing boards and a few wooden toys. The toys proved so popular that two-years later he named the company LEGO after the Danish ‘leg godt’ literally ‘play well’. It was only later they discovered LEGO also means ‘I put together’ in Latin. After the plant burnt down in 1942 they switched from wood to plastic, and in 1958 came up with the brick designes still in use today.
The main factory is still here in Billund and each years it churns out an astonishing 19 billion different LEGO pieces. Those pieces begin with the Monday morning delivery of raw ingredients. The finished pieces need to be tough enough to withstand a kind of bashing only a child can meet out, and safe if they end up being chewed. So, they are made from an extremely resilient plastic known as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene or ABS. The same stuff used to make black plastic pipes, computer mice and hard hats.
To turn out the 2,002 different elements in fifty-five different colours requires a huge factory housing 850 massive molding machines.
They begin by heating the plastic to 232 °C. The molten liquid plastic is then forced into molds using up to 150 tonnes of pressure. These precission molds are accurate to within 2 thousands of a milimetre and the process is so efficient that only 18 in every million elements fail to come up to scratch.
As each bucket reaches capacity the machine signals that it’s time for collection, and it’s automatically replaced with an empty one. To keep the 2 million bits they make every hour moving along 25 robots busy themselves ferrying the heavy buckets from the production line to the packaging department.
Here the pieces are sorted as every hour tens of thousands of different pieces are packed together with the all-important assembly instructions.
There’s no argueing that LEGO has been very succesful to date. But the time’s they aren’t changing. And with wizzy computer games competing for kids members of the development team like Steven Canvin have been busy developing new robotic forms of LEGO kits.
‘We wanted to… to bridge the gap between the virtual world which is computers and also… with their own physical with our bricks.’
These programmable robots come with everything, from ultrasonic hearing, sences to let them see, and touch sensitivity. So parents, beware! Once your child has found a way to arm their robot with the LEGO ray-gun, you may find you’re forced to raise their pocket money. Or else…
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