Make a list of the world's leading toy makers, and names like Mattel and Hasbro will likely rise to the top. Creata, the biggest toy maker you've never heard of, should be high up on that list too.
As a supplier of promotional toys for McDonald's, Kellogg's and other large companies, Creata designs about 1,500 distinct products every year. It then manufactures and distributes those products for an annual production volume of more than 1 billion units per year. Remarkably, the company employs fewer than 40 designers and engineers to pump out all these products — mostly toys, but also other promotional and personal care products.
Even more remarkably, the products the company makes have a level of sophistication that would shock engineers who work on more durable goods. Giveaway toys have finished costs measured in pennies rather than dollars. “Our toys are free, but they are not cheap,” says Isaak Volynsky, Creata's vice president of innovation and technology. “The quality and safety of our toys is equal or better than you would find in the retail world.”
In fact, Creata's giveaway toys increasingly incorporate the same advanced components and technologies found not just in retail toys but also in much more expensive consumer goods. To take a few examples, the company has produced toys with advanced molding techniques such as in-mold decoration and molded-in optics. It has toys featuring actuators made from shape-memory alloys. And many giveaways contain electronics that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. “The line between giveaways and retail products has blurred. We've come a long way since the days of PVC figurines,” says Tom Carsello, Creata's vice president of U.S. product development.
From the standpoint of Creata's customers, all this technology is just a means to one important end — coming up with toys kids like. “We ultimately have to make toys that kids want to play with,” says Jeff Jarka, Creata's vice president of creative services. “Kids today are so complex that catching their eye is tough,” agrees Kevin Smith, senior vice president for the Kellogg Company's U.S. marketing services and the man behind the company's cereal box toys. And one key to catching their eye is coming up with toys that not only have “play value” but also look at least as appealing as retail toys. “We don't want things that look like nickel toys,” says Smith.
And for Creata's customers, promotional toys are more than fun and games. For instance, the money invested in giveaway toys offers big paybacks in cereal sales. “Toys drive business in the cereal aisles,” Smith says. The same kind of economics applies to McDonald's Happy MealsTM too — especially since many kids, and some adults, try to collect entire series of toys.
Promotional toys also provide important lessons about how to operate a truly lean global design and manufacturing operation without sacrificing product quality or creativity. Creata runs its design operations on a shoestring, considering how few engineers it uses to design those 1,500 high-volume products per year. The company also fine-tuned its offshore manufacturing operations, and operates in China with few difficulties. “When you manufacture 1 billion products per year, you have to produce them in an efficient way,” says Carsello.
Creata relies completely on a digital design process. Or make that “nearly digital.” During the initial ideation phase and the first pitches to clients, Jarka and his designers do sketches on paper. “Nothing is faster than paper at this stage in the game,” Jarka says, noting that his team of 20 creative artists comes up with about 20 concepts for every product that goes into production. But once a concept starts to move down the road into production, everything from part design to design evaluation to tooling design is 100 percent digital. “The digital model of the product drives everything we do,” says Carsello.
Creata creates these digital models a bit differently than many engineering organizations. Rather than relying primarily on CAD, the company instead digitally “sculpts” most of its products in FreeForm from SensAble Technologies. When possible, the company's designers start with digital files from whatever animated film a toy references. When developing toys based on the animated film Cars, for example, the company started with digital files from Pixar Animation Studios, the film's maker. “Other times we're starting from scratch, sculpting something that doesn't exist,” Carsello says.
Once that digital model does exist, though, the real engineering work begins. Carsello notes the FreeForm models are used for 3D design reviews. Creata's customers and license holders like Pixar can, and do, offer feedback about the look of proposed toys. The same model later guides rapid prototyping machines — with Creata making extensive use of 3D printers and cast-urethane prototypes.
The 3D model ultimately kicks off the tooling process. Creata splits cores and cavities directly from the FreeForm model. “FreeForm does a fantastic job on surfaces and is outstanding at handling wall thicknesses on complex parts,” Carsello says. Traditional CAD does come into play at this point. Creata uses Pro/Engineer to design components specific to injection molds — such as the mold bases and ejector system. The tooling designs are lastly handed off, still digitally, to the company's mold makers in China.
Carsello adds that Creata sometimes uses SolidWorks to design “less organic” part surfaces than are found on most of the company's toys. “We have a lot of tools at our disposal, but most of what we do takes place in FreeForm,” he says.
The main benefit of staying digital from concept development to tooling is speed. “We operate at a very fast pace,” says Tao Xu, Creata's executive vice president in charge of global supply chain and product integrity. Though lean, the company's creative and engineering departments roll out a new toy every month or so for McDonald's and every quarter for Kellogg's. Creata's work for other clients and its handful of proprietary products also takes place continuously. “Sometimes we have just a few days for the development work,” says Xu, though usually the engineering team has a couple of weeks exclusive of the actual tooling construction.
And the company may soon get even speedier. Xu notes that the company now has design offices around the globe — in the Americas, Asia and Europe. Since digital sculpting can be time-consuming, the company is running this operation 24 hours a day, with FreeForm operators in one region handing jobs off to colleagues in a new time zone at the end of each day.
Embrace New Technologies — but Sparingly
Promotional toys do conjure up ideas of cheap plastics, but many of the toys Creata produces actually make use of advanced materials and manufacturing technologies (see sidebar, page 58). The Cars toys done for McDonald's, for example, make use of an in-mold decorating process normally used on cell phones and automotive parts. The company has also the company has incorporated Nitinol “nano-muscles” into one Japanese toy. “This is high-tech stuff that you wouldn't expect to find on any toy, whether free or not,” Volynsky says.
And there's even more to come. Volynsky, whose main responsibility at the company is to evaluate new technologies, says the company has several developments in the pipeline. Some involve electronics, including low-cost LCDs and printed circuitry for toys. Creata also helped develop low-cost thermoplastic elastomer formulations capable of replacing PVC — which has tough-to-duplicate cost and tactile advantages, but has also come under environmental pressure recently. “There are phthalate-free PVC formulations available now, but customer sensitivities have created a need for PVC alternatives,” he says. Creata also helped develop water-based paint that quickly air dries but still reduces VOC emissions by more than 90 percent, according to Volynsky. The company finally is looking at multi-component molding, a technology usually used on far more expensive parts.
Those are just a few examples that Volynsky will discuss. Creata maintains a database of new product and process technologies. It currently has about 1,200 entries. And the company has more than 50 active R&D products. “We're always looking at new technologies,” Volynsky says.
Before adopting any technology, though, Creata's engineers carefully consider which ones will best mesh with its manufacturing operations in China, where it has 14 factories and more than 50,000 workers at its disposal. “It's important that we find ways to fit new technologies into the ways our factories already work,” Xu says.
In-mold-decorating is a prime example. In the U.S. and Europe, this tricky process runs as part of an automated manufacturing cell that uses robotics to place the pre-formed decorative shells into the mold. In China, where there's a surfeit of low-cost labor, Creata intentionally uses less automation. The company's engineers built a manual tool for placing the shells into the mold. And with an operator on each side of the press, the cycle times for this manual system are about the same as robotic cell, Carsello says. “You don't necessarily need a robot when running a high-tech molding cell,” he says.
Aside from decisions about automation, Creata also actively manages the workload of its manufacturing partners. “It all boils down to social compliance. We don't overload or starve the factories we work with because that's when problems arise,” Xu says. Creata can take such an even-keeled approach in part because of the sheer volume of toys it makes for McDonald's, Kellogg's and others. Many OEM and even some retail toy makers don't have Creata's sustainable, predictable volumes, Xu concedes.
Still, Xu credits much of Creata's manufacturing success to the way it forms long-term, sustainable partnerships with its manufacturers. “It helps us achieve lower costs and higher quality than possible through design alone,” he says, noting that the predictable volumes eliminate the use of untrained workers and rushed manufacturing practices whenever volumes spike.
Focus on Quality and Safety
Trained manufacturing workers are important to Creata given the stringent quality and safety requirements the company's products must meet. Some of those requirements are imposed by Creata's customers, while others come from government regulators. But Creata itself often designs, inspects and tests its products to higher standards than either its customers or the government requires, according to Xu.
Product quality and safety have their roots in the design process. Long before a part goes into production, the company's engineers scour 3D models for features that would cause manufacturing difficulties. More importantly, they screen designs for a range of safety issues. For example, they run the 3D models through a computerized choking model — a digital representation of a child's throat. They also look for strangulation and suffocation, as well as part features that could pinch, cut or poke a child.
Creata's quality efforts continue on the shop floor. Xu reports that the company's factories have all implemented a real-time quality assurance program centered on extremely tight statistical quality control limits on its production lines. “The big picture is that real-time QA saves money,” he says. Its real-time aspect flags production problems quickly and keeps yields high — both of which pay off given Creata's huge annual production volumes.
Creata supplements its real-time QA system with extensive testing, both in the factories and in the company's own labs. One crucial difference in Creata's testing regimens versus regulatory requirements is in the type of testing that takes place. “McDonald's requires us to test to failure rather than testing to compliance, which is the practice in the rest of the toy industry,” says Xu. He goes on to explain that testing to failure has its own benefits — it reveals root causes of problems in ways that often remain hidden with compliance testing.
All these quality and safety efforts have paid off. “Since our beginning in 1973, we've shipped more than 10 billion products with 15,000 SKUs,” says Norma Rosenhain, Creata's founder and chief executive officer. “And we haven't had a single recall.”
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