Though bombarded by play options, kids still like to use their hands and imagination. And parents are eager to promote these skills. Plastic construction toys fit the bill by stimulating dexterity, sense of spatial geometry and free creation. They continue to be a mainstay for Christmas gift giving in the $15 billion-plus annual U.S. toy market.
Construction toys are selling well this holiday season, report two of the biggest suppliers, Lego Systems Inc. and K'Nex Industries Inc. Both have cranked up their injection molding schedules to match double-digit sales growth this year. Both have top-selling toys that have won many awards among toy-judging experts.
A Lego spokeswoman said a ``return to basics'' is helping to stimulate her firm's Lego Systems and Duplo building block kit sales this year. In the relative absence of red-hot toy trends, parents are giving children tried-and-true toys that help a child's development and allow parents and kids to bond through creative play.
Lego expects to mold 2.6 billion ABS pieces this year at its Enfield, Conn., plant, estimated spokeswoman Katherine Lee. This is a record for the operation, surpassing the 2.2 billion units it churned out last year when North American sales grew 15 percent.
K'nex expects at least a 20 percent sales hike this year for its ABS-rod and acetal-connector kits, estimated Joel Glickman, chairman and chief executive officer. It molds every piece at its Hatfield, Pa., plant, where parent company Rodon Group runs about 114 injection presses for the toys and a wide range of custom molding jobs. K'nex introduced its kits four years ago, but offshore revenues already account for a good chunk of sales.
Lego and K'nex have added more features to their kits to keep kids and parents interested. Basic versions are available, but thematic kits help children focus on specific projects, too.
Lego's Wild West kits are hot sellers, Lee said. Its Fort Legoredo includes a ``dynamite'' function sure to appeal to a child's fascination with benign destruction. A spring-loaded brick blows up a wall. Other strong-selling theme kits are Time Cruisers, Flying Time Vessel and Duplo Water Park for young children.
Lee said Lego kits altogether have more than 1,600 pieces, not including variations in colors. New kits added about 200 pieces to their stock in the past year.
``We like to refreshen out lines,'' Lee said by telephone from Lego's North American headquarters in Enfield.
K'Nex offers several new kits, including K'nexosaurus for building dinosaurs, a perennial favorite topic for kids. It also introduced a more ``kid-friendly power source,'' according to Glickman. The new motor is battery-driven, vs. its standard version powered from a wall outlet. The new motor can drive two different mechanisms in an assembled kit.
Lego and K'nex find they can mold competitively in North America. Unlike most competitors' toys, most of their basic parts come in unchanging sizes and configurations, allowing high-volume production on capital-intensive equipment. The same molds can be used for years. The very nature of the kits also means low labor costs since ``assembly'' is performed by the customer. Many competing toy producers change styles and toys annually and rely on cheap labor for assembly.
K'nex has its own molding plant and makes all of its own tooling, controlling mold dimensions to 0.0001 inch, Glickman said.
``We don't think we can duplicate this operation anywhere,'' he said.
The firm plans to continue supplying global markets from Hatfield, where it has room in the 223,000-square-foot plant to add as many as 30 more presses before it would need a building addition.
Glickman declined to speculate on expansion plans but said K'nex and Rodon add a few presses at a time as their toy and custom molding businesses grow. Toy major Hasbro Corp. of Pawtucket, R.I., has helped in global sales growth by distributing K'nex products in Europe, the United Kingdom and the Far East.
Lego will improve productivity by replacing 24 of its older injection presses next year, Lee said. She would not reveal other project details. Enfield expanded to 111 presses in 1992 but, Lee would not reveal the current press count.
Affiliated firms make Lego Group subsidiaries' molds in Germany and Switzerland with precision of 0.0002 inch to assure that Lego pieces are compatible no matter where they are molded.
Enfield has been Lego's North American production base since 1975 and will continue to be so, according to Lee. It molds about half of what Lego sells on this continent. Other Lego molding facilities are in Denmark, Switzerland, Brazil and South Korea. Lego Group companies have molded more than 125 billion pieces since 1949.
Enfield probably will help mold some of the more than 44 million pieces needed for a new Legoland theme park that Lego Group plans to build at Carlsbad, Calif., in the spring of 1999.
Lego Group will open its second theme park in Windsor, England, next March. The first Legoland, at Lego Group's Billund, Denmark, headquarters, dates back to 1968.