Mattel Inc. yesterday recalled more than 18.6 million toys it manufactured in China, citing problems with lead paint and concerns about loose magnets that children could swallow. The recall has no doubt caused some parents to worry. Engineers should worry too.
The voluntary recall includes 463,000 die-cast “Sarge” toys from Mattel’s Cars line. The company’s tests had revealed that Sarge’s paint contained levels of lead in excess of the 600 part per million limit set by the United States Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC). Earlier this month, Mattel separately recalled 1.5 million of its Fisher-Price toys over a similar issue with lead paint.
Mattel blames the most recent recall on a practice that may be all-too-familiar to engineers with experience manufacturing in China – namely, a vendor’s furtive change in materials or manufacturing processes.
Tom Debrowski, Mattel’s executive vice president for worldwide operations, explains that a subcontractor hired to decorate parts of the Sarge toy ran out of the paint Mattel specified for the car’s roof and windshield. The subcontractor, a company called Hong Li Da, then substituted a paint that contained lead. Debrowski says Hong Li Da acted without informing Mattel or its primary vendor for the car, Early Light Industrial Co. “If that subcontractor had followed our procedures, we wouldn’t be talking today,” he says.
The product safety problem may seem especially pronounced in the toy industry because it relies so heavily on Chinese production. According to the Toy Industry Assoc., China makes about 80 percent of all toys sold in the U.S. And Mattel isn’t the only toy company that has been burned by lead paint in recent months. Two other recent cases can be found here and here.
Engineers not involved in the toy business should still pay close attention to Mattel’s recall because it shows how easily quality assurance systems can fail in China. Mattel had years of manufacturing experience there before this lead paint incident. The company runs its own factories in China and has successfully managed dozens of vendors there over the years. And Debrowski notes that Mattel already had an extensive quality assurance program in place long before Sarge’s bad paint job. That program involved mandatory quality tests by Mattel’s vendors as well as testing of in-process and finished goods by Mattel itself.
Still, one rogue subcontractor managed to defeat Mattel’s best quality efforts. “No system is perfect,” says Debrowski. And that may be the larger lesson for any engineer responsible for production in China. “You may think you’re being diligent enough, but think again,” is Debrowski’s advice for any engineer overseeing production in China.
Mattel implemented several new testing requirements this week in the hopes of avoiding future problems – or at least catching them before the toys make it to the marketplace. Mattel’s vendors now have to conduct additional quality tests on all incoming materials as well as testing products that come back from any subcontractors. Debrowski says Mattel has also put an accelerated testing regimen in place, which involves quality assurance sampling from every batch of toys. “If anyone tries to trick us again, we’ll catch them,” he says.
Not all of Mattel’s recall woes can be blamed solely on Chinese manufacturing. In fact, Mattel called back 18.2 million toys because they contain small magnets that could become loose. This recall affects several lines of toys and accessories –including Barbie, Batman and Polly Pocket. A list of specific toy models can be found here.
Small magnets might not seem all that dangerous. Yet the attraction of magnets and magnetic components within a child’s body can cause intestinal perforation or blockage. In yesterday’s recall notice for some of the Mattel toys, the CPSC reported that Mattel has received about 400 reports of magnets coming loose from the affected toys. The CPSC had previously received 170 reports of loose magnets on Mattel’s Polly Pocket play sets, which led to an earlier recall in November, 2006. That first recall cited three reports of serious injuries to children who swallowed more than one magnet. “All three suffered intestinal perforations that required surgery. A 2-year-old child was hospitalized for seven days, and a 7-year-old child was hospitalized for 12 days. An 8-year-old child was also hospitalized,” according to the CPSC.
The magnet problem isn’t limited to Mattel. The CPSC late last year issued a safety alert in which it reports that at least 33 children have been injured from ingesting magnets from toys. One 20 month-old child died, and at least 19 other children from 10 months to 11 required surgery to remove ingested magnets. In response to the magnet issues, the ASTM revised its toy safety standards to address retention methods for small magnets with a flux index greater than 50.
Debrowski says Mattel’s move to recall the 18.2 million magnetic toys reflects this industry-wide awareness that magnets have health consequences. “Historically, if a magnet came loose it was seen as more of a functional failure – the toy wouldn’t work,” he explains. Once it became known that the magnets posed a safety risk, he continues, Mattel carried out several fixes to improve their retention in the toys. Among them were longer cure times for adhesives and the use of additional adhesive to encapsulate the edges of magnets. In January of this year, Mattel came up with what Debrowski calls “a permanent solution” that involves encapsulating the magnets in thermoplastic of the toy itself – sometimes by injection molding around the magnet. He says Mattel recalled magnetic toys made before the new fix – that is, from January 2002 to January 2007 – in order to ensure that all of its toys make use of the latest and most reliable magnet retention methods.
Mattel Experiments With Green Paint
Mattel's recall this week came after the company found lead in the paint used on one of its toys. But there's a far more prevalent environmental risk associated with decorating mass-produced plastic parts: Many industries still use solvent-based paints and cleaners for plastics even though there are viable water-based alternatives. In fact, Mattel had even had water-based paint in limited production back in 2000. Check out the end of this article from the Design News archives for more information.
These Toy Engineers Don't Play Around
Manufacturing safe, reliable consumer products in China requires exacting quality systems and tight relationships with local vendors. That's the approach taken by Creata, which makes promotional toys for McDonald's and other customers. Here's a look at how Creata has successfully produced hundreds of millions of toys in China without any recalls.