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-fetchedand 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 makerafter Matteland
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 inventorssmall
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 sensationready
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 industrieseven
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 dealmaking
G.I. Joe is one thing; working as a defense contractor is anotherand
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 engineeringthis one in electrical
engineeringfrom 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 yearsa 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 versiondog and kitten versions are already in productioncan
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.
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
productwe can already do some magical things with electronics
these daysit'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
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
Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in
He can be reached at email@example.com.