Dr Alexander Enoch with his creation Marty - a robot made from 3D printable parts.

Engineering skills: the building blocks of toy design

Earning big bucks for playing with toys is actually an integral part of the job for an increasing number of engineers, computer scientists and industrial designers.

During the noughties the digital revolution had shifted children’s attention from the bedroom floor to the TV screen and the demand for traditional toys took a massive dive.

Post 2009, movie tie-ins began to slowly drive licensed traditional toy sales upwards – forming around 25 per cent of the global market by 2013. But it was the construction toy sector that saw the biggest hike. According to business intelligence agency Euromonitor, construction was the fastest growing category in traditional toys and games in 2014 with 13 per cent value growth globally - due in large part to the phenomenal success of that year’s Lego Movie.

In March this year Lego Group reported a 25 per cent rise on 2014’s revenue, hauling in a whopping $5.2 billion for 2015 - with its building bricks being grasped by the grubby fingers of an estimated 100 million children. Meanwhile Mattel achieved an even higher sales soar of $5.7 billion, with Hasbro coming in third with $4.45 billion. Construction is also forecast to be the most dynamic category in overall toys and games globally with a further $3.3 billion in projected sales forecast by 2019.

This massive surge in construction curios for the toy titans and their subsidiaries is largely due to a string of incredibly successful licensing deals - including Star Wars, Disney, Harry Potter and Marvel - as well as an increased focus on the girls’ market.

But another major propellant has been an increased awareness by parents that construction toys inspire learning, especially of STEM subjects, galvanising all the major toy makers to play along.

In 2013 Mattel stumped up $460m for Mega Bloks, and Spin Master; Canada’s largest toy and entertainment company, bought Meccano.

The latter’s Meccanoid G15KS, a self-built personal robot comprising 1,100+ components, is installed with learned intelligent movement (LIM) technology, allowing its owner to move the robot’s arms and head or speak to it, which the Meccanoid records and repeats back. It also contains motion-capture technology that communicates with smart devices, enabling it to be programmed to mirror the user’s movements.

Consequently the rise of the construction toy – which is also tapping into educational initiatives like ‘learn-to-code’ – has seen a massive increase in demand for appropriately qualified employees to come up with the clever combinations – in particular computer scientists, mechanical engineers, and industrial and product designers.

But given there are currently very few specific ‘toy design’ courses – just how does one gain experience in this rapidly expanding field?

There are a number of tricks to start with, like arranging an internship to gain valuable industry experience and contacts. Or even just sending CVs and arranging informational interviews to give you an insight into the industry – while putting your name and face before prospective employers.

Another path is to apply for an entry-level position with toy manufacturers when nearing graduation. This ‘foot in the door’ approach enables you to showcase skill sets, giving you a distinct advantage over an external applicant if a design position comes up.

Alternatively one can apply for a specific position by utilising and ‘moulding’ experience gained in previous post-graduation employment, like Louis-Charles Dufresne, a 27-year-old product designer for Mattel’s Mega Brands. During his first year at university Dufresne studied urban planning, but then decided to switch to industrial design.

Initially employed by a company that manufactured and distributed mannequins and point-of-purchase displays, he worked in a small team creating showrooms, stand configurations and environments for trade shows – and developing new system parts.

But on encountering very happy friends already working as toy designers Dufresne took the plunge and completely changed track. He now spends his time designing highly detailed construction sets.

“My role within our team is mostly oriented around figurines,” explains Dufresne. “I do a lot of 3D modelling/rendering and decoration - choosing the appropriate colours and resins - and develop all the working parts. We work closely with our engineers to guarantee the best solutions and quality materials from prototypes to production.”

Naturally his job requires a vast amount of research, including watching movies and video games, but also requires a certain amount of technical adaptation.

“Before, I was working with extrusions, machining, screws, metal folding etc, then suddenly I fell into the completely different universe of plastics,” says Dufresne.

But with help from experienced colleagues and company-sponsored classes Dufresne has quickly advanced his skills.  

“Plastic production can be very technical and complicated – but the best part is that its versatility gives you an entirely new range of creativity. I’ve always been obsessed with details - so designing figurines is the perfect job for me as we focus a lot on making them as intricate and accurate as possible.”

With one year’s experience under his belt at Mega Brands Dufresne has already honed skills such as prioritising efficiently to achieve projects within extremely tight schedules, fully understanding new manufacturing methods and thinking in terms of large-scale production.

“While I pay great attention to the diversity and the details of our products, I also focus on the fact that our lines represent a whole. It’s important to me that we follow a common goal and that our products reflect this to the consumer,” he states.

Another way of breaking into the expanding universe of construction toys is by utilising inherent skills and creativity to invent a model or game of your own and go the start-up route.

Dr Alexander Enoch is the 30-year-old creator of Marty - a robot made from 3D printable parts that can walk, dance and even play football - controlled by a smartphone. Marty has been hailed as one of the UK’s most exciting technological toys given its potential to radically change how children learn about mechanics and computer programming.

Towards the end of his PhD in Robotics at Edinburgh University Dr Enoch applied for The Royal Academy of Engineering’s Enterprise Fellowship funding scheme to help him set up his company Robotical Ltd to manufacturer Marty.

The RAEng Enterprise Fellowships are designed to help academics commercialise their ideas, by offering business mentoring, training, and access to networks alongside the funding. Criteria for fellowships include studying at a higher education institution, working in the field of engineering, and having a product which is ready for commercialisation without requiring further research.

“Most importantly you need to be offering a truly innovative product that addresses a gap in market, or solves a societal challenge,” says Dr Enoch. “But the real challenge is to convince the selection panel that you have leadership skills, drive and perseverance to create a global company. Apparently I fulfilled those criteria!”

While there are plenty of smart toys on the market many cost a fortune and are geared towards adults. Inspired by his young niece, part of Dr Enoch’s objective was to create a very simple model that literally anyone can operate. Marty’s unique design also halves the number of motors required for each of the robot’s legs, reducing the cost dramatically – to under £100.

The other factor was to encourage an early uptake in STEM subjects. And while operating Marty involves 3D printing, Wi-Fi and smartphones - all juicy words to today's technologically pampered youth – one of the biggest challenges was to make the other subjects it encompasses - programming, electronics and mechanics – also engaging to young people and children.

“Marty is designed to look and be very friendly,” explains Dr Enoch. “He's got big eyes with moving eyebrows to show expressions, and he walks around with quite a cute wiggle. That makes people a lot more willing to get hands-on - even if it's initially just for fun like having him dance when they get an email.

At the same time we make it as easy as possible to get started. For example, you don't need to know anything about 3D printing, but there's the option to get more involved in the future, if you want to.”

Also challenging is going from doing a PhD to running your own company. Both involve a huge amount of work, but whereas with a PhD you spend days chipping away at one problem, running a company involves keeping a lot of plates spinning simultaneously.

“Multi-tasking and forward-planning to navigate a minefield of deadlines are definitely two of the biggest learning curves,” states Dr Enoch. “You also have to learn the business side: figuring out how to grow the company, and exactly how to corner your market. Thankfully, I do receive a lot of invaluable support and guidance from both the RAEng and from Edinburgh Research and Innovation.”

As digital technology and tools for robotics, coding and electronic circuit design in engineering continue to grow so too does the importance of engaging children and young people ‘unknowingly’ through the medium of play. Which in turn means a huge upturn in job opportunities in the toy industry playbox.

“For me it was a really good thing career wise,” says Dufresne. “Three years ago I couldn’t picture myself designing plastic figurines. Now I’ve got a good grasp of it and am learning new stuff every day. Initially you may struggle and be overwhelmed but in the end, it’s great for your creativity and keeps you constantly innovating.”

As for potential entrepreneurs without the benefits of RAEng funding – starting-up may not be as hard as you think.

“Step one would be to start speaking to people to see if your concept is something they actually want and what problem it solves,” advises Dr Enoch. ‘If you're at uni then talk to your tech transfer office regardless of what stage you're at. If you're not, there are lots of bodies like Innovate UK and Scottish Enterprise that can help you out. Then prototype, iterate and enter as many competitions as you can to give you a springboard and a focus.”

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