Last Monday I posted about Rethink Robotics’ Baxter robot which can be easily programmed to perform a variety of manufacturing tasks. And that very day, the Wall Street Journal had a story about a firm that uses Baxter robot (A Toy Maker Comes Home to the U.S.A., Mar 11)! K’Nex Brands makes a variety of plastic building sets that snap together to make any number of things. Over the last several years, they have moved much of their production from China back to Pennsylvania. There are a number of strategic reasons for the move.
By moving production closer to U.S. retailers, K’Nex said it can react faster to the fickle shifts in toy demand and deliver hot-selling items to stores faster. It also has greater control over quality and materials, often a crucial safety issue for toys. And as wages and transport costs rise in China, the advantages of producing there for the U.S. market are waning.
Robotics play a roll in this. They use the Baxter for “simple packaging tasks,” which sounds like the kind of thing that it would be impossible to have a human do more cost effectively in the US than in Asia.
But to my mind, the most interesting part of the article discusses the design trade offs that K’Nex has made to facilitate the move.
Check out the picture above. It shows two sets of tracks for K’Nex roller coaster sets. The one on the right is the older, Chinese-made design while the one on the left is the newer, Pennsylvania-made design. Note that those metal pins are gone. That ain’t no accident.
Toys had to be reimagined in some cases. K’Nex roller-coaster tracks were held together with metal pins, inserted by hand in China. The company redesigned the tracks so they could snap together. A tiny hubcap for K’Nex car wheels used to be attached by workers in a Chinese factory. Now it is included as a separate part in K’Nex kits, and children who get the toy have one more piece to snap into place. …
To increase U.S. content, K’nex has had to make compromises. Joseph Smith, the chief development officer at K’nex, points to a little car with a shiny metallic finish that zips around on one of the company’s roller coasters. The car’s silvery finish is “a neat look,” Mr. Smith says, but the process used to apply the coating is “expensive, it’s dirty, and we can’t do it here, so we design it out of the product.” Instead of the shiny coating, K’nex may supply decals, to be applied by the cars’ owners.
It’s an interesting challenge to think about how to redesign the toys without undermining the experience of using it. I suspect that either track design can work fine. Indeed, the integrated, all-plastic design may be more robust if the metal pins were prone to wiggling loose. Similarly, some kids may enjoy having more flexibility in how they build and decorate the toys.
So at some level, these seem to be harmless changes like updating classic board games (such as when Colonel Mustard loses his title in Clue). But there is a difference here if different sets are used together. Ditching the metal pins raises issues of backward compatibility. My son’s Legos are a mix of new ones with blocks handed down from several cousins and even some that my brother and I had as kids. They all work together. It creates problems and potentially angers parents if changes to facilitate US manufacturing mean that sets that should have worked together don’t.