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Inside the Lego Factory 260

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the when-i-was-a-kid-there-were-only-2-kinds-of-bricks dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Gizmodo has a fascinating report and video tour inside the Lego factory, which is full of robots and controlled by a mainframe. 'This video shows something that very few people have had the opportunity to witness: the inside of the Lego factory, with no barriers or secrets. I filmed every step in the creation of the brick. From the raw granulate stored in massive silos to the molding machines to the gigantic storage cathedrals to the decoration and packaging warehouses, you will be able to see absolutely everything, including the most guarded secret of the company: the brick molds themselves.'"
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Inside the Lego Factory

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  • by Nerdposeur (910128) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:10PM (#24278813) Journal

    The big secret: Lego Mindstorm robots are running the factory.

    I, for one, welcome our new bumpy-headed overlords.

  • Expensive (Score:4, Insightful)

    by JCSoRocks (1142053) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:11PM (#24278833)
    But this still doesn't answer the "Why is Lego so expensive?" question that I've always had ever since I was a kid. The materials can't cost that much (Obviously petroleum byproducts cost more now than they did 15 years ago, but still...). Also, those looked like injection molds - which AFAIK are one of the cheapest ways to manufacture something. Don't get me wrong - I love, love, love lego. I was just always sad as a kid that I didn't have money to buy more.
    • by pimpimpim (811140) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:16PM (#24278915)
      I am not in the toy making business, but I find their production process pretty high tech. And they probably have a very high production quality control. They probably invest a lot to keep their product as perfect as possible. Do they have production facilities in low-wage countries?

      Anyway, thanks to Gizmodo for making this amazing piece of fabrication history visible for us!!

      • by hjf (703092) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:58PM (#24279543) Homepage

        It's high tech not to have high quality, but to have less operators. You can either have low automatization in factories in low wage countries or high automatization in high wage countries, but the quality is the same (is plastic, god damn it. The product is only as good as the plastic it's made of).

        • Re:Expensive (Score:5, Informative)

          by MightyYar (622222) on Monday July 21, 2008 @04:05PM (#24279665)

          That's not really true. Process engineers have a lot to do with the quality of plastic products. Those big injection molding machines are really finicky about temperature and pressure, and the molds have to be designed very well. Otherwise you'd get legos that shrink too much, or not enough, or worst of all - not consistently.

          Legos have to strike a delicate balance between fitting too tightly and too loosely... it's actually amazing that all of the sets over the years are pretty darn compatible. It's the rare Lego that simply falls off.

          Plastic quality is also important, but presumably they are just buying some standard high-quality type. (Maybe not?)

          • Re:Expensive (Score:5, Interesting)

            by Reece400 (584378) <Reece400@hotmail.com> on Monday July 21, 2008 @04:32PM (#24280081)

            it's actually amazing that all of the sets over the years are pretty darn compatible. It's the rare Lego that simply falls off.

            Very good point, I have some nearly 20 year old legos that fit with brand new ones like they were from the same batch. I suppose I took it for granted without really thinking how much work would go into this level of quality control.

            • by mbessey (304651) on Monday July 21, 2008 @05:31PM (#24280811) Homepage Journal

              If you buy the cheaper competition, you'll quickly see how much Lego's focus on Quality Assurance matters. It's not unusual for the cheaper knock-offs to have a few bricks in each set that simply don't connect at all to the others.

              And those are all from the same batch - I doubt that year-to-year, or decade-to-decade, compatibility is even on the roadmap for those products.

              • by gfxguy (98788) on Monday July 21, 2008 @10:26PM (#24283609)

                It's true... I was scanning for a post that mentioned this so I wouldn't repeat; the quality of Lego is REALLY fantastic.

                Still, it's just injection molded plastic... if you look at average per-piece prices, it comes in at around 9 cents per piece... smaller sets are higher, larger sets are somewhat cheaper per piece. To me, that's outrageous for a mass produced piece of injection molded plastic.

                Don't get me wrong... I'm still a sucker... I buy a lot of Lego for both me the boy; I've even bulk purchased on bricklink.com thousands of 1x2 and 1x1 to build just about whatever I want, and they ended up being sometimes less than 1 cent per piece. But it's not always easy to find what you want in quantities you want at decent prices...

                If you think about large scale Lego creations, they can take tens of thousands of pieces. Even at 5 cents a piece, that gets very expensive very fast. I actually feel cheated when I see... well, for example, the model of New York that was made for the movie "Elf." I know they could have taken EVERY SINGLE package they had on the shelves in a typical department store and never even build one model of the Empire State building.

        • Re:Expensive (Score:5, Insightful)

          by sdsucks (1161899) on Monday July 21, 2008 @04:29PM (#24280035)
          Spoken like someone who knows nothing about plastic injection molding, but assumes it's simple. (In typical slashdot fashion.)
    • Re:Expensive (Score:3, Insightful)

      by zsazsa (141679) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:17PM (#24278929) Homepage

      They're expensive because they're made in Denmark, not China like almost any other plastic thing made even 15 years ago.

      • Re:Expensive (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 21, 2008 @04:13PM (#24279779)

        bzzzzt wrong. They're expensive because people will pay for them. Plastic injected parts are super cheap. Take a look at http://www.caplugs.com/ those are made in the USA and are super cheap. When you are doing high volume injection molded parts it makes little difference if they are made in the US, Denmark, China or anywhere else. It's all what the market will bear.

      • Re:Expensive (Score:5, Informative)

        by hjf (703092) on Monday July 21, 2008 @04:17PM (#24279845) Homepage

        so what's your point? Factories move to china for low wages,but obviously here that's not a problem because the process is completely automatic. You only need a couple of operators to change the molds and some QC, that's about it.

        Doing this in China could cost just a little less than doing it in Denmark, proving that legos are expensive "just because", and not because the manufacturing process is necessarily complex to require human intervention in every stage (like, say, clothes, that need to be sewn manually).

    • Re:Expensive (Score:2, Informative)

      by AndGodSed (968378) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:18PM (#24278937) Homepage Journal

      Exactly! Right now we are not buying our kids lego because it is so darned expensive. We get better toys cheaper.

    • by Yetihehe (971185) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:18PM (#24278941)
      It's like asking why macs cost so much. Part of the price is better quality, but largest part is trademark.
    • by Mastadex (576985) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:19PM (#24278967)

      They say that the entire plant (and robots) are controlled by computers, but that's actually a lie. Each one of those robots has a midget inside of it, controlling the vehicle. Its very expensive to hire and feed those midgets and also to supply a steady stream of hookers to keep them from uprising. Hookers aren't cheap and that's why lego cost so much.

    • by johnlcallaway (165670) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:22PM (#24279001)
      There is only one supplier, a significant demand, and they charge whatever the market is willing to pay. Don't like it, don't buy them. If enough people stop buying them, the prices may drop or the company may start producing less and cutting back costs and charge the same. Or charge more to make up for the revenue loss if the ones left will pay the higher prices. And so it goes....
    • by sherriw (794536) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:22PM (#24279005)

      They charge what people are willing to pay. Period. Of course they cost way less to manufacture, but how many companies do you honestly think will lower their prices 'just to be nice'? Please, Lego are popular and fly off the shelves even at their inflated price. More power to 'em. That's how the market economy works.

    • Re:Expensive (Score:5, Informative)

      by UltraAyla (828879) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:23PM (#24279033) Homepage
      The big deal (according to someone at the company in an NPR interview, I believe) is repeat customers. Since their product is so durable, customers tend to buy until they have enough then use them for a couple generations (I know my legos will be used by my kids someday). When a product is so durable, you need to charge a little more for it in order to ensure your company's survival.
      • Re:Expensive (Score:5, Interesting)

        by ConceptJunkie (24823) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:31PM (#24279137) Homepage Journal

        Indeed. There are Lego bricks in my kids' collection that are 40 years old from when I was but a tyke. The bricks that old seem to be a little more brittle than they are now, but otherwise are perfectly durable and compatible with the current Lego. It's cool to occasionally see the old logo on the studs.

        Lego is very expensive, but it's worth it. They've been through many changes, including some that I thought moved away from the core of what Lego is all about, but they still make a great product, and I still buy plenty for my kids.

      • by Nerdposeur (910128) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:31PM (#24279141) Journal

        When a product is so durable, you need to charge a little more for it in order to ensure your company's survival.

        Exactly. Which is why computers and software, which are obselete in less than 5 years, are so cheap.

        Hey, wait a minute! :)

        Seriously, though, you make a good point. If they wanted to be evil, I guess they could make them less durable, but I think in the end it's better that everyone knows them as the best.

        • by jimicus (737525) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:54PM (#24279491)

          Seriously, though, you make a good point. If they wanted to be evil, I guess they could make them less durable, but I think in the end it's better that everyone knows them as the best.

          There is also one thing to bear in mind - as soon as a company like Lego races for the bottom (in terms of price/quality), they're going to lose the customers who valued the quality and then be beaten to the customers who don't by other organisations who 10 or 20 years ago perfected the art of "juuuuusst enough quality that it won't fall apart within 15 minutes of the box opening. Probably."

    • by bugs2squash (1132591) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:30PM (#24279125)
      you love love love lego because it is different from duplo. It's got lots of cool themes that capture imagination and the product is so high quality that it's damn near impossible to separate some of the pieces when they're snapped together..

      I think the creative marketing and design justifies an elevated price, even if the physical product alone had not.

      It must also help to have the dealership channels that Lego have.

      Snap it all together and there are lots of reasons why Lego can get more for their product than others can.
    • by SirWhoopass (108232) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:37PM (#24279221)

      If you are fortunate enough to live near a Lego Store, watch for discounts on overstock.

      I've been doing that since my son was born. Scored a bunch of Duplo train sets for more than 50% off the retail price.

    • by LWATCDR (28044) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:46PM (#24279371) Homepage Journal

      I can think of one reason.
      People are willing to pay it.

      The reasons why people are willing to pay it probably have a lot to do with the quality of the product which IMHO is very high and the name recognition.

      In other words they are not cheap junk and people are willing to pay for quality, at least in this case.

    • Re:Expensive (Score:4, Informative)

      by dctoastman (995251) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:47PM (#24279383) Homepage

      Lego bricks currently clock in at an average of 10 cents a piece (i.e. an 800 piece set will run you around $80, a 5000 piece set will run you around $500 dollars.)

    • Re:Expensive (Score:5, Informative)

      by CopaceticOpus (965603) on Monday July 21, 2008 @04:10PM (#24279737)

      I also find it surprising that advanced manufacturing technology hasn't driven down the price of Legos. However, this article [fastcompany.com] gives some insight into the business side of Lego and shows that the prices aren't simply inflated out of greed.

    • Several reasons... (Score:5, Informative)

      by jpellino (202698) on Monday July 21, 2008 @05:04PM (#24280505)

      None of which alone explain it, but can add up.

      They are very particular about the ABS they use - it has to be metals-free, historically not very easy - which used to be supplied only by Bayer (until around 1998, LEGO US was still shipping ABS pellets from Germany to Enfield CT - one worth-his-weight-in-bricks engineer got GE Pittsfield MA to spec the plastic, saving them some bucks).

      The bricks IIRC are build to a tolerance of 3/1000ths of an inch. Look at bricks and try and find the gates (where the plastic in injected and detaches from the flashing) or the knock-outs (where a part of the molding machine pushed the brick out - typically these are obvious kludgy bits of a plastic toy, in LEGOs they are all but invisible) The LEGO engineers used to smile a lot as other companies' engineers searched, often in vain, for these tell-tale machine marks.

      In Enfield they have a lego-brick knight statue commemorating their ISO 9001 certification. Not so sure how many toy factories hit that mark.

      For a long time the place was rather labor-intensive. A 1990 tour had more people on the packing line and a series of lights to alert someone on the floor (who had to be in sight of the molding machines) to a malfunction. The same tour in 1996 this was replaced by a pager system. In all that automation, they prided themselves on never letting someone go from the factory when their role was replaced by a machine -they always had something new to be done based on a lot of R&D. Haven't been there since 2000, but I understand that pattern was pretty much unbroken.

      At least in Enfield, the factory was nearly as as spotless as the HQ office buildings. I doubt every plastic-toy-cranking factory elsewhere in the world has that level of upkeep, and it's not cheap.

      Making the rafts of tie-in toys means paying royalties to Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc. While base sets might cheaper at WalMart now than they were at a boutique toy shops a few years back, the brand name additions likely helped keep prices off the bottom.

      Enfield CT likely isn't the cheapest labor market around, which explains why, sadly, a year ago the last nut and bolt of the factory were shipped off to Mexico. Blasted sad. A great bunch of people up there.

    • by mbessey (304651) on Monday July 21, 2008 @05:26PM (#24280745) Homepage Journal

      1. They're expensive because they are built to a much higher level of quality than is typical for injection-molded plastic toys.

      Have you ever seen a defective Lego brick? Or heard of a set with a missing piece? A lot of work (and expense) goes into avoiding that. Hence all the automation - if they had humans doing all that work, Lego would be even more expensive.

      The bricks themselves are little marvels of engineering - they use extremely heavy, multi-piece molds, and sophisticated molding machines to keep the dimensional tolerances to within (IIRC) .001 mm.

      2. They're expensive because they're very durable.

      Despite the relative cheapness of the plastic material itself, you can easily find Lego that's 30 years old, has been played with by dozens (or hundreds) of kids, snapped together and apart thousands of times, and still functions perfectly.

      Given that they basically don't wear out, Lego bricks are priced higher than they would be if they were intended to be replaced from year to year.

      3. They're expensive because people are willing to pay for them.

      As a result of #1 and #2 above, Lego has a well-deserved reputation for quality. Despite plenty of lower-priced competition, Lego continues to sell well.

      You can even buy bricks that are inter-operable with Lego for literally 1/10th the price, and they still don't out-sell the real thing. Why? Because they're simply not made as well - they don't stick together or come apart as well as Lego bricks, and they aren't nearly as sturdy.

      Even as an 8-year-old, I noticed that the knock-off blocks were not worth building anything out of, and quickly separated them from my "real" Legos.

  • by markana (152984) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:15PM (#24278887)

    by an evil mainframe to enslave humans by hooking them on the irresistible construction toys, thus destroying productivity and creating an insatiable demand for new bricks.

    So far, it's working pretty well....

  • by Gates82 (706573) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:18PM (#24278947)
    I know because it is Lego it is a big deal, but on How it's Made, airing on Discovery Channel they have shown many injection molding processes including either Duplo or some other knock off Lego manufacturer. It is interesting (short), but not that "top secret"; nor super informative.

    --
    So who is hotter? Ali or Ali's Sister?

  • by oahazmatt (868057) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:19PM (#24278965) Journal
    Show me a skynet-like control system constructed out of nothing but Lego mindstorm, or nothing at all!

    (Still neat, though)
  • by bugs2squash (1132591) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:24PM (#24279043)
    So do the same mainframes control the police chasing Wall-e and Eve ?
  • by ettlz (639203) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:24PM (#24279051) Journal
    And I thought the sound of a Lego factory was the jaunty music of plucked strings and xylophones. How my illusions have been shattered.
  • meh (Score:4, Funny)

    by jollyreaper (513215) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:25PM (#24279065)

    Waiting for the part about the spoiled rich girl falling down the bad block chute.

  • Used Legos (Score:3, Interesting)

    by sokoban (142301) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:28PM (#24279103) Homepage

    Legos have always been expensive, but a lot of people don't realize that there are plenty of used legos for sale. Ebay and yard sales are often full of them. A great deal of the time, the instructions are included or are available elsewhere.

  • by xxxJonBoyxxx (565205) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:36PM (#24279209)

    this still doesn't answer the "Why is Lego so expensive?" question

    C'mon - seriously? Why does Starbucks coffee or Coke cost the consumer 25x the cost of the ingredients? Why do baseball cards cost 50x the cost of the paper and print?

    It's all BRAND. You're not paying for the plastic - you're paying for the TV commericals, the packaging, the crappy Star Wars licensing fees and even the salary of the PR flunky who gets this crap posted on SlashDot.

  • by Thelasko (1196535) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:46PM (#24279349) Journal
    a boy can never have too many LEGO bricks. Parents tend to feel otherwise.
  • by taliesinangelus (655700) on Monday July 21, 2008 @03:50PM (#24279453)
    http://shop.lego.com/ByTheme/Product.aspx?p=8633&cn=543&d=70 [lego.com]

    Maybe their operations were infiltrated by Slashdot memes...

  • by vurg (639307) on Monday July 21, 2008 @04:31PM (#24280069)
    I remember those yellow 4x2s are a real pain when I was little. I mean it's like forcing a square peg out a round hole.
  • by cheros (223479) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @03:25AM (#24285645)

    Almost 2 decades ago I worked in the color lab of one of the suppliers of the plastic granules that LEGO uses, and I can tell you that even then, LEGO had about the most tight color and quality control in place I've ever come across. That's probably why a new brick and a brick bought a decade ago are still so much alike.

    I remember that most of that production was checked in double tact: twice as often during a run then any other plastic, and that included metamere checking (ensuring that the color also changes correctly when you switch from daylight to artificial light - not always a given as every pigment you use can act differently).

    I've not been involved in developing the LEGO color recipes, but hats off to whoever did them from their samples - that must have taken at least a week. New stuff like matching the color of the leather going to be used in car seats was easier IMHO (although also challenging, precisely because of the metamere issues). But it was fun, albeit occasionally dangerous work, in those days some of the additives were highly toxic..

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