Engineering Barbie

El Segundo, CA -Mattel Corp.'s engineers have a strange way of playing with Barbie. They're far more likely to tear her limb from limb than to invite Ken over for a tea party. Sorry Ken, but sometimes you have to break a few dolls to build a better Barbie.

Though already a hugely popular icon, as evidenced by last year's sales of $1.5 billion, Barbie continues to evolve in ways that go beyond a new outfit or accessory. And Mattel's engineering staff continually looks for ways to incorporate all the new features that make her more fun to play with, less expensive to make, or both. "It's not always fun and games around here," says Isaak Volynsky, Mattel's corporate director of new technology.

Get under Barbie's skin as Volynsky has, and you'll notice that Barbie's most recent enhancements have relied on materials innovations. This year alone, three such advances have made Barbie more attractive than ever: New elastomers have given her a more lifelike body. Engineering thermoplastics have improved her complexion. And developmental water-based paints could soon result in a face that goes easier on the environment. You may not care much about Barbie-though it's really okay if you do-but each of these materials taps into something bigger than a doll. "All three have broader applications than toys," Volynsky notes.

Do the twist. Barbie might have seemed a bit stiff in the past, but a newly developed articulated waist-or "twisty tummy" as the 10-and-under set call it-now lets her bend in ways she's never bent before. Volynsky says the flexible waist grew out of a continuing effort to make Barbie's movements more lifelike. "You can't expect a handful of plastics to behave like a complex human system," Volynsky admits. "But we can try to mimic it."

Mimicking the physical movement of a waist turned out to be the easy part. A fairly straightforward acetal ball-and-socket joint forms the flex waist's skeleton. Finding the right elastomer to cover the joint proved more difficult. "Most importantly, the elastomer had to be flesh-like," Volynsky says. This fleshy quality calls for a material that combines softness without stickiness-a problem for many soft elastomers. "Low durometer materials tend to be tacky," Volynsky says, noting that some candidates even leached oil onto their surfaces.

The elastomer also had to balance the fleshy feel against a sometimes-contradictory list of physical and mechanical properties:

Flexible enough for Barbie to "stay" in place when posed

Tensile strength to survive bite and tear tests

A low compression set to keep creases at bay if Barbie stayed in one position for too long

Environmental resistance to UV, heat, saliva and perspiration

Mattel engineers scoured supplier literature for more than a year, finding nothing that would meet all the requirements. "We tested all available soft elastomers-even the ones we thought wouldn't work," Volynsky recalls. "After an exhaustive search, we concluded that the material did not exist," agrees Joe Cristina, Mattel's vice president of inventor relations.

Mattel finally got a break during one of symposiums it holds annually to evaluate new technologies. Here, engineers ran

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