ISABEL RUBIO ARROYO | Tungsteno
The LEGO block is much more than a toy. It has become a true architectural gem that inspires thousands of children and young people around the world. The pieces of different sizes and colours can be used to recreate all kinds of characters, vehicles and places, from Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon to the Taj Mahal. The famous block constructions have also inspired the creation of the new LEGO headquarters, inaugurated in October in the Danish town of Billund. The campus aims to realize the principles of imagination, creativity, fun, quality and learning that have led the Danish company to become one of the largest toy companies in the world.
But this journey to become a global toy manufacturing phenomenon has been a long one. It all started back in 1932 in a small carpentry shop in Billund, a Danish municipality of just over 6,000 inhabitants. Carpenter Ole Kirk Kristiansen had to reduce his production costs and lay off his workers after being affected by the Great Depression. Together with his son, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, he started making miniature versions of his products as samples, which inspired him to begin crafting wooden toys.
Right from the start he opted for a totally handcrafted toy. He himself took on the responsibility to visit every shop in the area to promote his toys. One of the company's first toys was a duck, which was Ole Kirk's favourite toy and would be the company’s brand image until 1935. As sales were growing very slowly, he thought that finding a name for the company might help. The result was LEGO, an abbreviation of the Danish term leg godt, which means "to play well".
The new LEGO headquarters was built imitating the brand's own colorful blocks under the same values of its toys: inspire creativity and innovative thinking. Credit: LEGO.
From wood to plastic
The LEGO factories, which had to cope with the destruction of numerous wooden toys in two separate fires, gradually employed more workers. By 1943 there were about 40 employees and the company and its toys were continuing to evolve. Until 1947, wood was the material used to make the toy houses, trains, puzzles and even yo-yos. After that, plastic toys were produced with injection moulding machines. The company was the first in Denmark to get hold of such a device, which cost DKK 30,000 or about 4,000 euros. With the bricks they manufactured, the aim was to nurture the creativity of children to create their own structures. Among other constructions, the most important were those of cars, trucks, buses and other vehicles.
By the middle of the 20th century, the company was producing around 200 different plastic and wooden toys. Among these were the Automatic Binding Bricks, a precursor to the LEGO bricks we know today. Although the parts were initially not very stable, in 1958 the company patented a "coupling system". Tubes inside each LEGO brick were the solution so that the pieces could be assembled in a stable manner.
The success was such that the LEGO factories stopped producing wooden parts and focused solely on plastic ones. From the 1960s onwards, ABS plastic was adopted, which was non-toxic and better able to withstand heat and discolouration. The increase in sales of LEGO, twice recognized as "toy of the century", led the company to expand outside Denmark. It started selling in Sweden and would later reach more countries such as the United States, Canada, Japan, China, Russia and Spain.
While the new LEGO campus is sustainably built, the company still has ahead of it to bring this sustainability to alternative materials to plastic for its toys. Credit: LEGO.
After the LEGO building block patent expired in 1981, other construction toy alternatives emerged on the market: for example, Super Blocks (Tyco), the Spanish TENTE (Exin) and the Argentine Rasti. In order not to be left behind, LEGO pushed forward with the creation of new models and the adaptation of its toys to the changing times. Nowadays you can learn robotics with LEGO or buy construction kits with augmented reality technology. For example, it is possible to build trains and program them to accelerate, brake, turn on their lights or change direction.
But LEGO still has a challenge: to achieve a sustainable alternative to plastic for its parts. Currently, only 2% of its products are manufactured with bioplastics. The company, which has also committed to reducing carbon emission by promising 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020, has announced its intention to stop the production of plastic blocks by 2030. To achieve this, it has invested 150 million dollars in research and has already experienced with 200 combinations of materials. None just convinced the company: some are too soft and others too hard to join and separate the pieces easily.
Nearly 90 years after Ole Kirk began making toys, the LEGO empire goes far beyond the creation of its plastic blocks. The company was passed down from father to son and is now owned by Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, the founder's grandson. LEGO creates a wide range of branded products—from board games to video games and even movies. In addition, it opened its first theme park in 1968 in Billund: LEGOLAND. This includes miniature representations of places around the world made from LEGO blocks. Its opening exceeded all expectations. In the first year alone it welcomed 625,000 visitors. It now has locations in the UK, Germany, the USA and Malaysia. Both these parks and the toys pursue a common goal: to encourage children to explore, experience and express their own world—a world without limits.
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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.