Childs play: Smarter toy development at Hasbro

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Keeping Hasbro’s pipeline of new toys flowing is a serious business. Stephen Holmes speaks to members of the company’s Spark R&D team, responsible for bringing exciting concepts to life and integrating new technologies that keep playtime fun

The list of brands owned by legendary American toy maker Hasbro brings childhood memories flooding back. From Transformers to My Little Pony, and from Operation to Risk, few companies have such a rich heritage on which they can draw. There are also numerous toys and games ready and waiting in the wings for a periodic resurrection, such as Beyblades and GI Joe.

Finding out how all this works in product design terms is eye-opening. Each brand has its own engineering team, its own marketing team, its own budget. In short, each operates like an independent company under the wider Hasbro umbrella.

Designers working on Transformers, for example, will work on the shape-shifting toys all day, every day, and on anywhere between 50 to 150 products at a time. From these labours, 20 or 30 ideas at a time might be pitched to vendors and marketing. The hope is that perhaps two or three ideas might stick. And when they do, those products must be designed and manufactured rapidly, ready for sale to the public.

Hasbro’s Spark R&D unit works a little differently. It’s a separate unit, almost ‘skunkworks’ in the way that it operates. Its members parachute into these brand teams to lend their expertise and to troubleshoot issues with new products.

This makes sense when you consider that, in the past, Hasbro has offered some 2,200 products each year, according to Chris Whipple, a senior project engineer in the Spark R&D team.

“We work with whichever brands need our attention,” says Whipple. “So, if the Transformers team, for example, has a product that’s over cost, or more complicated than the average product, they can bring us in, because we have specialised skill sets. We kind of augment that team for the duration of that project, and then move on to the next thing.”


A robotic engineering graduate plucked straight from university to join Spark’s animatronics unit, Whipple explains that the Spark R&D team plays three key roles. First, a Spark team brainstorm will generate an idea, perhaps one that brings in outside technology. This will be quickly prototyped and put in front of different brand teams.

Second, there is the role of cross-pollinating ideas across brands. Given the unique, ‘floating’ nature of the Spark team, it can carry ideas between distinct teams within the company, especially where it spots a particular synergy between their individual brands and toys.

Third, the Spark team is there to help when a brand team has an idea it wants to bring to reality, but where it needs extra assistance.

The Droidables range takes beloved Star Wars characters and adds cartoon styling, along with sound and movement

The droids you’re looking for

The Star Wars Droidables range fell into that third category. A product from this range is typically a cross between an action figure and a fidget toy. The original idea was to take R2D2, BB8 and other beloved Star Wars droids and then to add cartoon styling and endow them with various movements and sounds.

In the normal push and pull of development, things just get progressively more complicated Chris Whipple, Hasbro

“The heads move around like a joystick, and as you move the head in different patterns, you evoke different emotions out of the droid,” says Whipple, adding that these interactions bring the toy to life for whoever is interacting with it.

The project began in a pretty typical way: the Star Wars engineers at Hasbro provided 2D sketches to spec out the toy and explained the requirement for a range of movement and other features. At this stage, there was not a lot of CAD work done. This information was then sent to a partner manufacturer responsible for producing the toy.

But a couple of weeks later, the first models came back from the partners in the Far East and didn’t display the range of motion expected.

“It’s the normal push and pull of development,” says Whipple. “Your simple prototype that was just two plastic pieces is now 15 plastic pieces, a circuit board, three batteries, a battery door, seven screws, right? It just gets progressively more complicated.”

Given the short turnaround time required, Whipple was asked to step in and fix the issue. Even from an initial look at how the toy had been constructed, he knew that stripping back the interior of the product would be required to achieve the right range of motion and product feel. He had just one week to get the product CAD model from where it was to where it needed to be.

“In years past, that process would have been especially [problematic], coming from mesh files,” says Whipple. “I would have had to send those off to our model shop. They would have converted those mesh files into parametric files,” he says. Back then, he adds, those parametric files would then have been imported into Solidworks, the company’s primary CAD package at the time.

“And then I’d have to clean up those files, because the imports are always going to be wrong. There are always going to be issues with that import process. So, I’m looking at just one week to get clean files that I can then start to manipulate.”

However, Whipple was one of a handful of engineers at Hasbro that had recently been testing out Onshape. He immediately saw the benefit of tackling the translation in the cloud-based CAD software package, instead of sticking to the usual, lengthy routine.

“I was able to bring those mesh files straight into Onshape, taking almost no time to convert them to being cloud based. They were able to throw extra computing power at us, and I had workable files in Onshape in under one hour,” he says. “Of course, it doesn’t handle those necessarily natively, but it definitely handles the mesh files better than any other CAD software that I’ve used.”

With a clean model to work with and with time to spare, Whipple had the opportunity to reappraise the design. That led to an important realisation: instead of trying to reinvent the wheel with a custom mechanism, why not just use an existing joystick?

After all, the electronic modules at the core of every joystick, in every game controller are already produced at volume. The Hasbro sourcing team was tasked with finding a unit available at scale before Whipple downloaded the corresponding CAD file from Onshape. “I dropped it in, and it was a perfect fit!” he says.

With the reengineering of the toy complete, the design was ready to head back out to the Far East for production and then on to a resounding market success. These, it seems, were the droids that every Star Wars fan was looking for.

Onshape was used to import and clean up data from the manufacturer

Moving at speed

The velocity with which projects move now at Hasbro is astonishing. CAD files aren’t the starting point, but instead signify a product that has made its way through a gladiatorial selection process, via sketches and 2D Photoshop work.

Designers can whip out ideas really quickly, says Whipple, explaining that a pitch might see 20 or 30 ideas considered, with only a couple making it through. “And that’s when we’ll invest the time and resources to do CAD work.”

A stand-out project for Whipple, for example, was working on the Star Wars AT-AT walker, a 3-foot-tall replica of the film’s four-legged armoured vehicle that, in toy form, can waddle around and shoot foam darts.

“But, from a technology standpoint, the smaller stuff is actually more challenging, because there’s a pricevalue discrepancy, right?” he continues, suggesting that the scale of the large Star Wars vehicle sets a different expectation than a much smaller robotic Furby costing $60.

“That Furby has to bring a lot of value, so we cram a lot into that small package and that makes for a really interesting design challenge!”

While brands like Furby exert an emotional tug on parents who played with them as children, it’s a reminder that the key function of a toy – play – needs also to resonate with their kids and perhaps with their grandkids, too.

But smart thinking looks set to ensure that Hasbro products remain toybox favourites for future generations to enjoy.

This article first appeared in DEVELOP3D Magazine

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