Beyond Play: Behind the Scenes with Toy Testers Part I

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Image1Anna van Slee began her career in multi-media journalism, focused on bringing science news to the public in an entertaining way. Through her experience with comic books and storytelling she came to Kunoichi, where she leads creative strategies that make multi-platform toy brands more meaningful and successful. Check out Kunoichi at http://www.kunoichi.com, and connect with Anna at http://www.linkedin.com/in/annavanslee.

From concept sketches to marketing, some steps in the toy development process get more attention than others, although perhaps none are more overlooked than testing. These are the people who get to break stuff for a living. They are scientists who tweak, twist, probe, drop and set ablaze the contents of the American toy box. Meet Santa’s unsung heroes: AM Testing & Services. 

About 60% of the products that the company reviews are toys. Compared with other consumer products, toys have the strictest regulations – and the younger the child, the stricter the standards. Seeking insight on this essential and low-profile profession, I traveled to AMTS’s lab in Alsip, IL., where six intrepid lab testing employees wile away the day with inductively coupled plasma, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and rubber duckies. 

AMTS’s testing falls under two categories: compliance testing, and everything else. Compliance testing determines whether the product meets the applicable federal, state and European-mandated standards. "Everything else" goes beyond that, usually focusing on the toys' longevity. For instance, how many times do you think shoppers can press the "Try Me" button on an action figure package before the battery runs out? AMTS gets to actually push the "Try Me" ad infinitum (or build a machine that does it for them at a measurable rate) until the battery dies. And that's just the tip of the awesome iceberg.

Image1Let's focus on the iceberg metaphor for a moment, because it's an apt description of compliance testing. Like the Titanic, most toymakers don’t see it coming. And unprepared ships can sink. Major toy companies have entire departments dedicated to testing, but smaller toymakers don't have those resources on staff. Enter Ozzie Cartagena, AMTS Testing Consultant. Cartagena handles the initial stages of the testing process – Consultation/Evaluation and Scope - helping toymakers chart a course around the proverbial iceberg.


Ideally, the Consultation/Evaluation is done “in person” – meaning the potential client sends at least one physical sample of their product. Simply a photo won't do. "I need to know if graphics on a toy are a sticker or painted on," Cartagena explained. Every paint shade needs to be individually tested. So do all the different materials. Cartagena creates a comprehensive inventory of all the components.

After he’s dissected a toy, Cartagena must classify it. Which tests a toy undergoes depends on who's going to play with it. And that demographic might be different than the owner intends, thanks to a tricky little factor called "play value." Take for example a furry hat with cat ears and a tail. Is it an article of clothing, or a toy? The hat maker might intend for it to be only a hat. But as Cartagena notes, if it looks like a plush doll, then it’s likely a child will play with it. Anything with "play value" falls under the toy category, along with its stricter regulations. The more categories a product falls under, the more testing it must undergo; and the more testing, the greater the cost.

Even when a product's category is clear, there’s still an ocean of regulations to traverse, written by lawyers and scientists. “Sometimes they take three paragraphs just to explain you have to ‘pull’,” said William Gonzalez, an AMTS Toys and Juvenile Products Testing Consultant. But once these initial stages are complete, Gonzalez takes over and the real fun begins…

To be continued in Part II.

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