Anna 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
AM Testing & Services primarily performs compliance testing, which is divided into three categories: physical, chemical and flammability. Collecting samples for the chemical testing leaves behind some bizarre leftovers: rubber ducks with cutout faces, dolls with scratched-out eyes, wheel-less trucks. If not for the legal implications, AMTS could open an exceptional art gallery.
But AMTS looks more like a lab than an art gallery. It's difficult not to think of the AMC show "Breaking Bad” when speaking with Mike Bauer, AMTS’s director of technical services. Like the shows' hero, Walter White, Bauer is quite accomplished: He currently holds three U.S. patents. Also like Walt, Bauer has some very cool machines in his lab, such as the one he uses to analyze toy paint samples. First, the sample is dissolved in acid to mimic human digestive juices. Then, it’s filtered into a vial and placed in the ICPOES (optical emissions spectrometer) which shoots the sample into a fire and measures the light emissions coming off the flame. These wavelengths can reveal heavy metals. “Basically, it’s a furnace with an electric eye that looks at the results,” Bauer summed up. The whole procedure takes place in what looks like a massive blue and white microwave. It’s delightfully impressive, compared with the miniscule technology of everyday life.
However, nothing steps outside of everyday life like the physical abuse tests. The AMTS testers get to pull, twist, drop and intentionally try to break the toys they evaluate. Both before and after this stress testing, the toy and any pieces that did break off are measured against a cylindrical opening that indicates how large an object must be to not present a choking hazard.
AMTS has an army of tiny articulated metal probes that they explore toys with, assessing where a child-sized finger could reach. This investigation requires both expertise and imagination. “I play with everything,” Bauer said. “It helps to understand the developmental stages of children – depending on how old a child is, they will use [the toy] differently.”
Some toys require custom testing solutions. Consider toy airplanes, which pose the obvious danger of accidentally being flown into a child’s eye. Bauer invented a test to measure ocular damage caused by toy airplanes that takes a picture of a pig’s eye before and after the plane is flown into it. (For medical purposes, pig eyes are very similar to human eyes, according to Bauer.) The test is included in the American Society for Testing and Materials’ (ASTM) methods. “I have you to thank for all the times I have to dig into a bucket of eyeballs!” Gonzalez jokes to Bauer.
All the animal eyeball handling is forgiven when we come to a hooded area of the lab with a blowtorch behind a shield. “We’re allowed to be pyros here,” Gonzalez said. Flammability testing is unique in that it is not a Pass/Fail test. “Anything is flammable,” Bauer said. Flammability testing assigns a degree of flammability to a product.
While it’s fun to melt toys, AMTS is always mindful of the real-life hazards they work to prevent. The job has changed their worldview – along with some unexpected side effects. The team jokes about how they can't shop like they used to before getting into the testing industry. "You can always tell someone [shopping in a retail store] who has worked in testing, because they go straight for the label," Bauer said. Gonzalez adds that he often starts to test products right there in the store – twisting and pulling parts to gauge their safety. "It gets in your blood," Bauer said with a smile.