Broken Christmas Toys

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

They could make toys better.  They could make them stronger, less prone to wear and damage.  They could make them safer, with fewer dangerous small parts, with fewer toxic materials, with more comprehensive testing.  They could make them more educational, smarter, more sophisticated. They could make toys better.  But they don’t.

When our children were young, it was not unusual during the days and weeks after Christmas to find a Christmas present already broken and discarded.  It started out life beloved and cherished right out of the gift wrapping.  The doll joined a tea party.  The Hot Wheels car joined a parade and then a race.  The new watch went on the wrist for the rest of the week.  Some toys came back for repair within minutes, while others lasted days.  A few sturdy stalwarts lasted long enough to be handed down to a sibling.  Why weren’t all the toys made that sturdy?  Why were some made of flimsy materials that easily broke in the hands of an industrious four-year old child? 

Toy designers and manufacturers do have a choice.  They could make better toys.  Why don’t they?  Because we consumers so often choose lower price over higher quality.  Imagine a toy seller who produces two models of the same toy.  The first model is made of the inexpensive materials, with little attention to durability.  Costs are reduced further by slimming down the thickness of each part and minimizing the number of fasteners by using an inexpensive sealing process.  This makes the toy not only more frangible, but also less repairable.  The second model is made to last, with high quality materials.  The designer pays attention to likely wear patterns and beefs up the parts where weakness might otherwise lead to breakage.  More expensive fasteners are used so that the toy can be repaired, should any problems occur.  From the outside, the two toys appear quite similar.  A Christmas shopper in a hurry probably couldn’t spot the higher quality of the second toy without close examination.  The only clear difference is the price, which is almost three times more for the second model than the first.  Towards the end of the shopping season, the first model has sold out, yet stacks of the second remain.  Why don’t they make toys better?  It isn’t some insidious toy conspiracy.  It is because we ourselves won’t pay for the higher quality.  You get what you pay for.  We choose to pay little, so we get little.

The forced choice in making a toy is not unusual.  Trade-offs are implicit in most engineering designs, requiring a balance between multiple goals that each appear to be good. yet more of the one requires less of the other.  Balancing cost and quality is just one example.  We trade-off weight (and indirectly safety) with high gas mileage in automobiles.  We trade-off time to market with thoroughness of clinical testing for new pharmaceutical drugs.  We must often prioritize the competing goods of aesthetics, performance, reliability, safety, recyclability, and more.  I once asked my students in an engineering class about the difference in the rigor one should use in designing electronics for an MP3 portable music player when compared to designing a medical instrument to monitor an infant’s vital signs.  At the one extreme, some students indicated there should be no difference.  They thought that Christians should do our best and produce the most excellent and safe designs regardless of the intended use.  This position, advocating for an equal attention to all designs regardless of intended use, has some scriptural support.  Colossians 3:23 tells us “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”  No matter where we find ourselves, every occupation is worthy of our best efforts as an offering to the Lord.  At the other extreme, some students indicated that the infant monitor should be designed with the utmost care and much more attention, compared to the music player.  This position, advocating for more care when the intended use is more critical, also has some scriptural support. Philippians 4:8 tells us “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” 

Can you ever go overboard on safety?  Is there ever an acceptable risk?  I believe so.  Consider two examples.  First, look at the common nail hammer.  It is designed to pound nails into wood.  This purpose leads to a design with a hard striking surface, a relatively heavy weight to provide momentum when the striking surface is swung, and a long handle to harness the centrifugal force of that swing into a powerful impact on the head of the nail.  The design is appropriate to the need.  The design is also deadly.  That same powerful impact on the head of a person will kill.  We could alleviate that risk by reducing the weight of the head, softening the striking surface,  shortening the handle to reduce the swinging force, and so forth.  The resulting pillow on a stub stick would no longer be able to kill, but it wouldn’t be able to pound nails either.  Second, look at making your car safer by adding steel plating to protect you during a crash.  However, plating makes the car heavier, so gas mileage plummets.  Plating in place of fragile windows would be even more protective, but then you wouldn’t be able to see out very well, making driving less aesthetic and probably more accident-prone.  If we add even more plating to make it even more safe, the car may not fit in the lane anymore, nor fit in your garage.  That extra plating will cost you—so much that we might price the car out of reach of most budgets. 

Good designs are thus a balance of competing goods.  If the balance is distorted, favoring one goal to the exclusion of all others, the resulting product is usually dysfunctional, because proper function depends on meeting multiple goals simultaneously.  Not only are products the result of a trade-off, but the engineering design process itself is also a trade-off.  The old saw “Better, faster, cheaper—pick any two” is a reflection of the balance between the scope, schedule, and cost of a project.  Does this mean that one must always accept less of one goal in order to achieve more of another?  Not necessarily.  Sometimes we find a clever new way to achieve both lower cost and higher quality, e.g., by reducing waste.  Sometimes we find an innovation that lets us achieve both environmental stewardship and corporate profit, e.g., by reuse and recycling.  Sometimes we find a way to make a part both lighter and stronger, e.g., by using composite materials.  I think such combinations are particularly excellent and praiseworthy.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest