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Fun and Games

Engineers and computer scientists are turning their passion for play into exciting careers at toy companies.

By Paula Lipp and Lory A. Frenkel

What was your favorite toy to play with as a child? Was it Mr. Potato Head? What about Slinky or LEGO? Engineering and computer science students often point to toys that taught them to think, to construct and to design as their earliest inspiration to pursue a career in technology. While many students will take the lessons learned at a young age into jobs designing roadways, writing computer code or analyzing chemical processes, some are discovering that they can go back to a life of play by pursuing a career at a company that designs and manufactures toys.

Toy manufacturers employ engineers in many capacities, from streamlining the production process, to testing toys for safety and durability, to designing packaging. As technology advances and kids become more sophisticated, however, toy companies are relying on their engineering staffs to invent new products and improve upon old favorites. Take Mattel Inc., the El Segundo, Calif., company that offers such standbys as Barbie and Hot Wheels. The company has entered into a partnership with chip manufacturer Intel to expand both companies' product lines.

The microscope uses digital video imaging technology to let kids aged 6 to 12 view items like worms or flowers up close, then manipulate the images on a PC. Executives say the product also appeals to older kids and adults. "You should see the crowd of Intel engineers surrounding the product" in the lab, says Mary Ann Norris, one of two directors of the Smart Toy lab project. "These aren't kids."

Nerf Lightnin' Blitz™ (Hasbro)

Nerf Lightnin' Blitz™ (Hasbro)

Mattel already enhances many of its toys with electronic components, such as offering Barbie with a digital camera and CD-ROM software. Increasing competition, however, has played a part in creating the joint venture which, as the lab's other director Michael Bruck explains, relies on technology to take toys into a new dimension. "The goal wasn't to take existing categories of toys and stick electronics inside them," he says. "There isn't even a defined category for these kinds of toys. We wanted to go off and do something new and different."

This Is No Game

Such competition is fierce throughout the toy industry. At last February's American International Toy Fair, an industry event managed by the Toy Manufacturers of America, David Miller, president of TMA, noted that total industry sales from 1997 to 1998 rose only about 4% to $20.3 billion. Though there are small companies that nibble out a corner of this market for themselves, most have been consumed by the two industry giants, Mattel and Hasbro, which oversees brands including Playskool, Kenner, Tonka, Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers and Tiger Electronics.

From a business perspective, toys are anything but a game. Manufacturers work feverishly to create the next hot item that kids beg their parents to buy them. Bill Smith, vice president of engineering at Hasbro in Cincinnati, Ohio, notes the impact that this has on the toy engineer's job. "It's a fad industry, so in addition to [providing] the technology lead on product development, it's a project management and leadership role" for the engineer, he says.

Technical professionals in Smith's department deal largely with industrial design, safety analyses and even work with the marketing and packaging departments. "The challenges are having fresh and innovative product in a timely manner, but above all, being safe and reliable," Smith explains. "We are very aggressive in time-to-market. In this business, if you're not first, you're not there. It's stressful, but rewarding."

Chaos EffectĘ Night Hunter Series™ Ultimasaurus™ and Roland 
Tembo™ produced by Hasbro

Chaos EffectĘ Night Hunter Series™ Ultimasaurus™ and Roland Tembo™ produced by Hasbro

A similarly industrious environment pervades at San Mateo, Calif.-based Zowie Intertainment Inc., a start-up company developing "smart toys" that combine traditional play with advanced technology. Zowie's inaugural products, Zowie PlayZones, integrate action figures and PCs allowing a child to play with the figures and control the action on the computer screen. Marcos Vescovi, the company's co-founder and chief architect, explains that the development cycle of such products—from concept definition, to design, to pre-production and production—takes 10 to 12 months.

"It's very fast-paced because of competition," he affirms.

The embrace of computers by the industry has allowed companies to perform many of those functions more quickly, however. Smith notes that technology drives much of Hasbro's product development process. Computers allow for 3-D designs and simulated tests for tension, and the technology has advanced through work with movie and television studios that employ the latest special effects. "Licensed product is our mainstay here," Smith explains, "so we work with [George] Lucas's and [Steven] Spielberg's studios.

We did the initial work on the Jurassic Park line" of action figures, for example. Other product lines that have been licensed for toy development by Hasbro include Star Wars and NASCAR.

Star Wars Episode I Electronic Royal Flagship™ Escape from Naboo™ Vehicle/Playset (Hasbro)

Star Wars Episode I Electronic Royal Flagship™ Escape from Naboo™ Vehicle/Playset (Hasbro)

At Hasbro, taking an idea from blue-sky concept to finished product involves a team of professionals representing quality assurance, manufacturing, product development, marketing and industrial design, and support groups from other areas. The whole process will generally be completed in about a year. "Some products of opportunity are driven considerably shorter than that, such as holiday shipments of the Furby last year," Smith adds.

Putting the "Action" in Action Figures

Computer games and game systems have become a dominant force in the toy industry, and some companies are moving beyond games that simply let you control the actions on the screen with a joystick or keyboard. For example, Zowie's newly released Redbeard's Pirate Quest allows a child to navigate a ship on screen by moving action figures and turning the wheel on a playset. The PlayZones utilize sensing and recognition technologies that track the movement of the figures and transmit the information to the PC through an embedded antenna.

Star Wars Episode I Electronic Royal Flagship™ Escape from Naboo™ Vehicle/Playset (Hasbro)

Zowie Intertainment's Ellie's Enchanted Garden™

Bringing together a traditional playset and a computer game involved a lot of programming savvy on the part of Zowie employees. Vescovi explains, "We wanted to do something interesting for kids and we wanted to make toys come alive. If the actions of the toy are repeated on the screen, the kids are able to blend the two worlds. By making the animation on the computer come alive, it works as if we were making the actual toy come alive."

To do this, Vescovi says that programmers at the company use C and Assembler Firmware in the toy's hardware, which drives the sensing technology; a C++ driver that communicates with the toy hardware; and a C++ Software Development Kit (SDK) that is used by application developers. "We also have, on the electronic side, RF engineers and mechanical engineers," he notes.

Despite the advent of electronic toys and games, Hasbro continues to employ mostly mechanical engineers, with some chemical engineers (the company maintains an extensive chemical department in its Cincinnati location). Materials, metallurgical and electronics engineers, along with computer scientists, round out the staffing mix. "Electronics are a significant piece of quite a few of the products that we do," Smith notes, "but whether it's inside of a doll or a truck or whatever, there is a mechanism that goes along with that that is a mechanical engineering challenge."

Meeting those challenges pushes engineers and computer scientists' basic technical and math skills to the max. "A sound understanding of physics and strength of materials is key," Smith says. "We're looking at all the physical requirements that are placed on our products, analyzing situations that are given to us by our designers. You have to design things that are reliable and strong, given a structure that's weak to begin with."

Who would think that something like a Nerf rocket launcher would present a technical challenge? "The stress force on the firing chamber, which is all plastic, is intensive," Smith notes. There's also the issue of preventing the device from firing anything it shouldn't, like a pencil—what engineers in the industry would call "an improvised projectile."

And companies know that big kids often play with toys, as well. "We have to keep the activation force low enough so that a 5-year-old can operate it but still get the performance out of it that an adult could, because the age rating on a product like that goes from kindergarten to college students."

Smith notes that regardless of the toy's function or the age of the child it is designed for, all products must endure rigorous safety testing as well. His staff relies on computer modeling and finite analysis to determine whether the products can withstand drops, bites, being sat on and ensuring that a child can't swallow small parts.

"From an engineering standpoint, you're looking to make a product as fun and reliable as possible, but there are other issues that go beyond that that can impact an engineer's design," Smith explains. In addition to safety concerns, the global nature of the toy business adds to the list of skills that technical professionals must possess. At Hasbro, many products are designed in the United States, but manufactured in the Far East. "That's a challenge our engineers face," Smith offers. "It's a global development process. You could be working with a licenser in Hollywood, doing marketing here in Cincinnati and working with design engineers in the Far East. All that would be coordinated by the engineers here in our office."

That process would also be impacted by the product's projected longevity: Is it something that's going to be viable for four or five years? Or will the company produce a smaller quantity over a shorter period of time? "You might construct a product differently if you know it's going to run for several years," Smith explains. "You want to make it as profitable as possible."

As a result of those varied demands, the ability to manage people and communicate with both technical and non-technical people is key. In fact, Smith says that people skills are among the most significant qualities that he seeks in new employees.

Think of the Children!

For Smith, the stresses and challenges of working in a demanding industry are matched by the fun he has in bringing exciting, highly visible toys to life. "Even entry-level engineers have that opportunity. When you're working on a project, there's a strong chance that it will end up on Wal-Mart's shelves in six to 12 months," he says. "And having an opportunity to work with kids and moms and dads is a lot of fun."

Focus groups of children and parents are a mainstay at toy companies. At Zowie's Frog Pond research lab, employees observe children at play in order to understand natural play styles.

"It's a lot of fun," says Vescovi. "I think the main reason for this is the kids, and just being in an environment where you have kids coming in all the time and you get to work on something fun." He also cites the multidisciplinary nature of toy design, which involves not only engineers, but graphic artists and game designers, to name a few.

With its focus on toys with complex behaviors, Zowie is interested in teaching children as well as entertaining them. Incorporating activities that involve problem solving, symbolic reasoning, hands-on experience and hand-eye coordination, smart toys allow children to become comfortable with computers at an early age. This is particularly important in motivating the next generation of computer scientists and engineers.

Smart toys are still in their infancy, and Vescovi believes they have a big future ahead. "I think pretty soon kids will be bored by toys that do not have complex behaviors," he says. "There is a whole open road ahead. I think we're just touching the surface, so for engineers who like toys there will be a big industry out there very soon."

Vescovi's optimism is supported by statistics that estimate that the smart toy segment is expected to grow to more than $2 billion by 2003, according to Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. Part of this growth may be due to the fact that the toys will be affordable. High-tech usually means a high price tag, but smart toy companies such as Zowie realize that products designed for children must be low-cost. This is a factor that adds to the challenge of the job. "It requires even more work to get something high-tech and make it low-cost," says Vescovi.

Paula Lipp, former editorial manager of Graduating Engineer & Computer Careers, still plays with Barbies to relieve stress. Associate Editor Lory A. Frenkel prefers the therapeutic qualities of LEGO construction.

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