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Toy Story

An engineer has made a career out of creating hot-selling toys such as FurReal, a lifelike cat that can hiss and flex its back when provoked.

- By Pierre Home-Douglas

LEIF ASKELAND remembers enjoying the movie Big, in which Tom Hanks plays a 13-year-old kid reborn in the body of an adult and becomes a major creative talent at Macmillan Toys. Still, he found the 1988 hit a little far-fetched—and not just because he doesn't believe in reincarnation. “The toy industry is a lot different than what most people think,” says the soft-spoken 45-year-old. “We don't sit around and play with toys all day. Actually, we take them very seriously.”

He should know. Askeland is vice president of engineering at Hasbro, the world's second-biggest toy maker—after Mattel—and the man in charge of what insiders at the company call the “big kids group,” which deals with everything from the latest Action Man accessories to venerable classics like Monopoly. His latest triumph, the lifelike animatronic cats called FurReal Friends, was one of the hits of the 2002 holiday season, earning a Top Dozen award from Toy Wishes magazine, which tracks trends in the industry.

Despite the ever-increasing sophistication of toy designs, the success or failure of a product still comes down to one not-so-simple thing, according to Askeland: an idea. “People have a tendency to underestimate the value of ideas,” he says from Hasbro's head office in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. “In this business, good concepts are what it's all about.” Those ideas can come from unlikely sources. In addition to almost-daily brainstorming sessions and in-house experts in “ideation,” companies like Hasbro will visit trade shows for a variety of other industries. “We might go to a trade show for the printing business and see a flat battery that we can use or a medical show where they display surgical instruments. There you might find the latest in new material development that can be adapted for a toy.” Or someone might go to the candy show in Chicago and get an idea to design a toy lollypop. One place they rarely go for ideas are toy shows. “By the time you see it there,” Askeland admits, “it's already too late.”

There is also a relentless stream of inventors—small companies or occasionally just a team of two or three people who make a living trying to come up with the next Tickle Me Elmo sensation—ready to pitch their latest ideas. “We have a whole system for screening ideas from inventors. The trouble is you need more than just a good idea. You need to demonstrate that it's also feasible. That's where a lot of people run into trouble because they may not have the right expertise in a certain field.”

The exchange of ideas is not a one-way street. Hasbro has had an impact on other toy designers and other industries—even the military. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, approached Hasbro after it saw Furby, the 1998 sales sensation that was the first of the artificially intelligent soft-fabric toys. The Department of Defense's research and development organization was impressed by what Hasbro had managed to sell for $30 each. “If the military had produced Furby, it probably would have cost several thousand dollars a piece,” Askeland quips. He said DARPA was particularly interested in remote-controlled vehicles that could be used in urban warfare to go where soldiers couldn't or wouldn't. Ultimately, however, Hasbro was concerned with the military aspects of the deal—making G.I. Joe is one thing; working as a defense contractor is another—and decided not to pursue the liaison any further. Askeland says that one positive spinoff was that Hasbro made good contacts with universities and research organizations that work with DARPA, which may prove fruitful for the future cross-fertilization of ideas.

Like many others, Askeland never envisioned a career in toys when he was young. “I grew up in Norway and I enjoyed toys like everyone else but mostly stuff like Lego.” After earning a bachelor's degree in engineering at Goteburg Institute of Technology in Sweden, he worked for a company in Denmark that made graphic-arts equipment such as automatic film processors for X-ray and dental films. The company landed some big contracts with Kodak and other film makers. Eventually, the firm was purchased by Richmond Graphic Products, which was located in Providence, Rhode Island. “I came over to finish up projects that I was working on. But one project led to another. Plus, I met my wife.” The couple now has two children.

Hasbro hired Askeland in 1987. The company was expanding at the time and looking for expertise in plastics and injection molding, which Askeland had acquired in his work in Denmark. Since joining Hasbro he has worked on designing everything from rectal thermometers (for its child product division) to dollhouses. Along the way he also picked up another bachelor's degree in engineering—this one in electrical engineering—from Johnson & Wales University in Providence. “When I worked in Hasbro's Playskool group it was clear that the impact of electronics on toys would continue to increase. In order to adequately oversee and lead teams to develop products, I felt I needed expertise in that area, too.” He worked on the degree part time while doing his day job and managed to finish it in four years—“a lot of work,” he recalls.

Of all his achievements in the industry, Askeland says he is proudest of his work as project manager on FurReal Friends. The cat version—dog and kitten versions are already in production—can respond to stimuli from its owners, hissing when its tail is tugged, for example, or flexing its back when it is gently stroked. It came about because of new developments in technology. “We used a unique sensor scheme that senses the presence of your hand. You don't need to press switches or anything like that. Based on how you play with the toy, it will determine how it responds. It will go into a playful mode or an aggressive mode or a hangout mode. Once you get it into one mode it takes some work to get it into the next mode. Just like a regular cat, it takes a while to gain its trust. Our aim was to mimic real life as much as possible, to have kids live out the fantasy of owning a pet.”

Meowy Christmas

In 2002, FurReal Friends debuted at the big annual toy fair in New York City and the reaction was, Askeland recalls, “not great.” Hasbro managed to convince a retailer to ship it to one region of the country and the sales were surprisingly brisk. “We had trouble keeping up with demand and ended up with a shortfall for the holiday season,” says Askeland.

On FurReal Friends, Askeland headed up the project development team, which included mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, an R&D designer, a quality assurance person, programmers, model makers with a background in fine instruments, and a marketing person. The team was responsible for bringing the product to market, a process that took 14 months.

Askeland believes that the limit to toys in the future isn't so much the number of chips that can be loaded into one product—“we can already do some magical things with electronics these days”—it's more the mechanics. “It's becoming more difficult on the mechanical end to keep up.” He says that the business is limited by current manufacturing techniques, like injection-molded processes that can't be set to extremely fine tolerances. Plus there is the fact that in the past 15 years or so in the toy industry, a lot of the mechanical development has shifted to overseas companies, decimating the talent pool in the United States. “When I first started in the industry, I often worked with very senior people who had helped design typewriters, or printers, or other elaborate mechanical equipment. But nowadays, you see very little of that simply because those types of items are very rarely manufactured in the United States anymore.”

Askeland says no one short of a soothsayer can say where the toy business will be in the future or what toys will look like even a couple of years from now. But one thing he will wager on is the type of people he'll be hiring in the future. “As a project engineer you need to work with people in a variety of disciplines. You have to coordinate efforts with a team that includes electrical engineers, software engineers, quality assurance people, marketing people, illustrators, and content developers. There are so many people involved. Your people skills are key. There is simply no way you can sit at a desk and design a product on your own. It's a true team effort.”

Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.
He can be reached at

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