Zoomed In Child’s play

Author / Editor: Fabiane Hörmann / Simone Käfer

This year, one of the most popular toys is celebrating its 60th birthday: Lego. Time to look back at the history of the Danish company.

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In all over the world, children grow up familiar with these for letters: Lego.
In all over the world, children grow up familiar with these for letters: Lego.
(Source: CC0 Creative Commons)

For some, it's Barbie; for others, it's the Game Boy or the Playstation. For many adults, however, the favourite toy of their childhood was Lego. This small building brick is so popular nowadays that it has long since left the playroom. Of course, there are still the simple building sets for children, like the City Hospital or the Lego Train. The portfolio, however, is much broader than that. First, there were the sophisticated sets of Lego Technic, famous for trucks and machinery with many functioning parts. Later, highly complex models were added, for example, the Buckingham Palace of the Lego Architecture series or sets that even became collectables, such as the Lego Star Wars Millenium Falcon, consisting of more than 7,000 building bricks. By this time, the Danish toy had reached an adult audience.

Lego has many more products outside the material world of toys, such as a number of computer games (Lego Harry Potter, for example), TV shows such as Ninjago or Legends of Chima, and in 2014 for the first time also a movie. Lego has become multimedia-based and is thus keeping with the spirit of the times. The bricks have long become cult and even those who have not held a Lego brick in their hands for years or even decades only think of the Lego brand with positive feelings. For some, the small brick in multiple colours was the starting point of their career in engineering. This year, the Lego building brick looks back on a 60-year history.

The bricks are still an integral part of any children's room. This is thanks to their ingenious yet simple design. Lego's production facilities have a combined parts output that is so high that the world's population fits more than five times into that number. However, the simple building brick with its knobs had a rather shaky start.

Denmark's first injection moulding machine

In 1949, Lego founder Ole Kirk Kristiansen and his son Gotfried modified the "Automatic Binding Bricks" of the English inventor Hilary Fisher Page by resizing the bricks by 0.1 mm and grinding the edges. These self-locking building bricks were cubes made of cellulose acetate with four knobs in two rows on the top side, similar to today's building bricks. However, they were hollow within. As a result, the building brick constructions were not particularly stable, often even a small impact was sufficient and the buildings collapsed. Another problem was the so-called “jumping effect”; two building bricks were put together and after a short time they jumped apart again. It is therefore not surprising that the sales figures of the bricks were modest during this period.

A look at Lego's production in 1961.
A look at Lego's production in 1961.
(Source: Lego)

Only three years earlier, Kristiansen had been the first toy manufacturer in Denmark to purchase a plastic injection moulding machine. The investment had cost the company double the previous year's profit. For Kristiansen, a trained master carpenter with a wooden toy production, it was really a daring acquisition.

But he and his son had been on the right track all along: In 1958, they applied for a patent in Copenhagen for the further development of the self-locking building brick. By that time, they had gotten rid of the awkward name – the bricks were already known as "Lego Mursten" (Danish for "Lego bricks"). The jumping effect and the low stability had been eliminated by the self-developed tube and knob connector system: The knobs on the top of a brick fitted exactly between the round hollow bodies and the side walls on the underside of another brick. Thanks to the tight tolerance limit, the tubes and knobs adhered to each other by friction. According to the manufacturer, the moulds now have an accuracy of 4µm or 0.004mm.

In addition, the building bricks are now made of hard, scratch and bite-resistant acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic. This modification marked the beginning of the triumphal march of the Lego brick. As simple as the individual module is, as extensive are the possibilities it offers. With as few as six eight-headed modules, there are over 915 million possible combinations.

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Of course, the company has long since outgrown the few injection moulding machines once standing in the small factory in Billund, Denmark. “More than 90% of Lego products are manufactured in the Lego plants in Denmark, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Mexico. In addition, the first production facility in China was opened at the end of 2016,” says Kathrin Trowitz, PR representative for the Lego DACH region (Germany, Austria and Switzerland). “Between 70 and 80 % of all Lego products sold in Asia are to be produced in Jiaxing, south of Shanghai.”

Technical progress makes it possible: Today, the entire production process, including the cooling time, takes about 10 seconds. The plastic granulate is heated to approximately 230 to 310°C before injection and then pressed into the injection moulds at 2,000 bar. Building bricks from unsold packages can easily be melted down again and processed into new bricks.

Green bricks will be made from sustainable plastics

About 1 to 2% of the products, for example, leaves, bushes and trees, are not made of ABS plastic, but of polyethylene. According to Lego, they will be made of sustainable polyethylene from 2018. Ethanol obtained from sugar cane is used in the production process. The product range has also grown: There are now more than 3,700 different module models and instead of the initial five you can choose from more than 60 colours. Today, there are about 80 Lego building bricks for every person worldwide. However, the construction principle has not changed. A component from today's production line also fits on a component from the 1960s.

This article first appeared on MM Maschinenmarkt.