Designing toys takes sketching and planning and imagining, sure. But what's even more impressive is the actual making—still a much more industrial and craftsmanlike process than you'd imagine. It requires, essentially, a whole factory condensed into a few rooms of Hasbro's headquarters outside of Providence, Rhode Island.
We were recently able to get an in-depth look at the workshop. It's a huge place, but we're going to focus on a few of the highlights of how your favorite toys evolve from half-ideas to fully functional, kung-fu-gripping friends.
Instead of traditional model makers, a lot of Hasbro's samples are actually grown by 3D printers. The industrial equipment ranges from room-sized rigs that require temperature controls and intensive training to operate. Here's just a sampling of the machines that make Megatron & Co.
The most intricate designs are saved for the Perfactory machine, which—outside of Hasbro—is almost exclusively used by jewelers who need to mock up pieces to send to the moldmaker. For toy purposes, it uses an epoxy-type material that allows for the fine detail necessary in smaller scale figurines and accessories. The sword with a dozen different glyphs and etchings that comes with an action figure? This is probably where it was born.
The simplest machine to use is called a Z-Corp Spectrum, and was custom-made for Hasbro for precisely that reason. It requires infinitely less supervision and training on the part of the designers working with it. They just send the project to the machine, make sure it's got the materials it needs (a powder sintered by resin), and watch as the individual pieces are produced.
That simplicity belies advanced output, though; the Z-Corp Spectrum can spew out parts that are fully formed with articulated, interlocking pieces. A team of secondary designers examines the individual pieces under magnification for imperfections, but largely, this is the closest you get to plug-and-play for toy prototypes.
Stereolithography (SLA) by 3D Systems
The largest of Hasbro's systems is called a Stereolithography (SLA) machine, by 3D Systems. The machines are housed in a climate-controlled room, and use laser light to cure a polymer-based resin layer by layer. Basically, it shoots a laser at a sheet of material over and over until it hardens. It's mostly used for large, defined pieces, like a housing for a bigger doll, or a case.
The most basic—but also probably most utilized—machine is the Object 3D. This is, more or less, a MakerBot. It's can handle hard, soft, or flexible materials, and a variety of projects, from figures to housings. It works, essentially, as a 3D laser printer, and has been used by a ton of industry bigshots. During the production of Iron Man 2, for instance.
But before the toys go to production, Mark Maher is responsible for painting each and every Transformer by hand. Every one. By. Hand. And every Transformers package you see in stores with a model photographed on it is of a toy that Maher painted himself. Considering how automated the rest of the process is, it's kind of amazing to have one guy taking care of that whole process on his own—especially one with a Decepticon logo tattooed on his chest.
A single figure will take Maher a few days of actual work to complete, but the timing's never that straightforward. Like the designers, Maher is continually working on hundreds of toys a year, so he can't simply start on one and paint it all the way through. Instead, he'll consult the mold breakdown and paint the details of a few pieces at a time, pinning each into a styrofoam grid mirroring the breakdown. During the process, he might see if specific colors or color palettes work with specific materials. He's in contact with Lenny Panzica, the lead product designer for the Beast Hunters line, and other five designers on the Transformers team, throughout the entire process.
Maher, who originally went to school for Computer Information Systems and just harassed his way into Hasbro, has a background in graffiti art. (Hasbro even commissioned him to do a full-wall installation in one of the waiting rooms.) A lot of the techniques, like spraying down all the pieces at once for a base, or the hand-painting techniques, flow naturally from that.
It's not just a spray-and-go job, either. A lot of Maher's time is spent inventing new colors using the Pantone PMS system, and deciding how the color palettes should work out across a whole line. He's in communication with Panzica through this, since it has a pretty drastic effect on how a character is perceived. Stark contrasts, like the black and orange on Predaking, are evil, while a character with no name, but a white, blue, and gold palette will be recognizable as a good guy right off the bat.
Hasbro does have a few patents for specific colors—Bumblebee Yellow, Optimus Red, and Optimus Blue—but for the most part, the colors are picked to fit the specific job, not because they're in the back catalog.
Brian Winters has been a master model-maker at Hasbro for 18 years, though he has a background in craft woodworking and architectural modeling as well. He's in one of the people in charge of making sure everything's working properly when it goes to production.
Winters takes the CAD drawings produced by Hasbro's design team along with the Takara Tomy team, and has prototypes produced in the workshop. From there, he basically tests them. Is this wheel too loose or too tight? Does that joint need to move more fluidly? Will it stay upright with a sword in its hand? These are physical world problems, but they have numerical values in CAD programs like Solid Works. If something isn't checking out quite right as a toy, chances are, changing a few values here or there—the size of a gear, the fit of a hinge—will sort things out.
Transformers aren't the only things that pass through Winters's office. While we were there, he showed us the toughest project he'd ever worked on—an animatronic talking Einstein head that never came to market—and a walking doll that he was fine-tuning motor functions for. That process involves not just working out timing and fit, but giving the motions a lifelike quality, when possible.
Ultimately, though, the steps used to construct a perfect toy is a lot like anything else: build, troubleshoot, revise. It just happens to be a lot more fun.