Toymaker Little Tikes always got new products onto store shelves. But many werent 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 percent of new products used to meet the companys profit projections. Now, two-and-a-half years later, the success rate is 96 percent.
The truck unveiled in October at the Fall Mass Market Toy Expo in New York is supposed to be an addition to the companys popular Rugged Riggz lineup of childrens 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.
Heres 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, “wed 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 theyre 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 were going to end up with a recall. We can catch any ergonomic problems, says Harland. “With rocking toys, for example, its 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 percent.” The result has been what the Little Tikes president describes as a double-digit percentage growth in sales of his companys infant and toddler toys.
Rapid Prototyping Nuts
& 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 teams 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 companys 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 didnt 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. Its 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. “Theres no guarantee that were going to get those, but weve got to at least give it a shot.”
Those are shots Little Tikes couldnt make before. But the companys adoption of rapid prototyping technology has put it in the sandbox with the big kids of the business—and Loretta Harlands crew may just steal their lunch money.
The Little Tikes Co
. Base Case”>
The Little Tikes Co. Base Case
Headquarters: 2180 Barlow Rd., Hudson, Ohio
Phone: (330) 650-3000
Business: A division of consumer-products giant Newell Rubbermaid, Little Tikes makes a variety of play products for children, including infant and toddler toys, trucks, sandboxes, activity gyms and climbers, slides and juvenile furniture.
Information Services Manager: Christopher Fuss
Financials in 2002: Sales are not broken out from Newells other divisions. Annual revenue is estimated at under $350 million, less than 5% of Newells $7.4 billion in 2002 sales.
Challenges: Take on toy giants Mattel and Hasbro in the small-toy market, increase profitability of the companys product lines.
- Reduce product-development time by 25%.
- Get products in front of retailers and children as much as six months earlier to catch problems with products before theyre sent to manufacturing.
- Increase the rate of new products that hit profit targets, from 60% in 2001.