Toy race cars spit out sparks and the kitchen stove talks back.
At Little Tikes Co. in Hudson, officials are doing things differently these days. The longtime rotational molder and blow molder is starting its own in-house consumer research group, increasing its design staff and bringing in its first injection molding capacity.
``We think we're poised to really start having great years in '05 and '06,'' said Brian Kirkendall, vice president of global product marketing for the division of Newell Rubbermaid Inc. ``We had to get our ducks in a row, determine who we wanted to be.''
Hudson now is Little Tikes' only North American production site, following the closing of its Sebring, Ohio, blow molding site earlier this year. Last year the 34-year-old company closed sites in City of Industry, Calif., and Farmington, Mo. But President Clancy Lavins said the firm is at its peak, stronger than ever.
``We've had to get better as far as our manufacturing capabilities are concerned,'' Lavins said in a May 13 interview in Hudson. ``So we have made huge strides in our productivity and huge strides as far as our cycle time. But we think we're as good or better than anybody in the industry. ... If we had the productivity and efficiencies that we have today, five or 10 years ago, we would have probably gotten out of those factories a lot sooner than we did.''
Kirkendall emphasized Lavins' point. The firm has moved 60 percent of Sebring's 132 employees to Hudson and is expanding manufacturing by replacing warehousing space.
``Sebring was not an abandonment of Ohio,'' he said. ``We didn't need two [plants] - we needed one big facility.''
New products portfolio
The toy market is fiercely competitive, as U.S.-based producers become a minority in the global economy, forced to fight for shelf space among mass retailers on one end and battle rising material costs on the other.
``We've pushed every area that we can, as far as being able to take cost out of our business and add value for our customers,'' Lavins said.
With about 900 employees at the Hudson site, Litle Tikes this year plans to introduce more than 100 products, a level it also achieved last year. The firm now is developing more seasonal products, such as Halloween flashlights, and offering wood furniture, fabric dolls and putting rubber tires on trucks.
``It is a little bit of a departure,'' Lavins admitted of the new, broader material selection. ``Does our brand work with wood or plastic? Yes. Does Mom want possibly wood or plastic? Yes. So we shouldn't just restrict ourselves, then - if our brand works on wood and Mom wants wood - to just plastic. So that's kind of what has led us to different materials.''
The push for new product innovation comes from parent firm Newell Rubbermaid, based in Sandy Springs, Ga. In the company's 2003 annual report, officials outline the company's intent to be a ``new product machine'' to enhance brand image and gain additional store listings.
``Little Tikes formerly was concept driven without strategy,'' Kirkendall said. ``It was product driven. Now, we do all the homework up front.'' Lavins credited Kirkendall, who joined the firm about three years ago, with bringing discipline to the product development process.
Officials don't plan to abandon Little Tikes' foundation of big plastic playthings.
``That is key to who we are,'' Lavins said. ``We don't plan to walk away from that, at all. Playhouses, climbers, kitchens, furniture, ride-ons, that's the core of what we're all about. And we'll continue to run in that business. We're just not going to see double-digit growth in those categories. We're realistic about that.''
Sales numbers are closely guarded, even though it is owned by a publicly held firm. Plastics News estimates Little Tikes had 2002 rotomolding sales of $206 million.
``We've grown each of the last three years,'' Kirkendall said. ``We expect to be heavy plastic consumers. We don't have any sort of goal to reduce our dependency on plastic.''
Strong design push
Now injection molded play kitchens talk to kids and trucks with motion-activated sensors run on their own. This year, Little Tikes introduced an Adventure Series battery-powered, ride-on Hummer, with large capacity storage and an aircraft-style gearshift. Managers sit down once a month and review new products.
``Our buyers are not looking at new products on a once-per-year basis,'' Lavins said. ``It's every six months. Every six months, everyone's coming up with something new and we're having to defend our shelf space that we have, or we're looking at ways to be able to enhance a product that we'd like to be able to do more.''
Little Tikes has offered kitchen play sets for years, but the polypropylene, talking Magic Cook Kitchen that the firm will launch this fall is different. Television advertising will back that effort.
``It's got radio-frequency intelligence so that it provides great play value to kids,'' Lavins said. ``It has over 1,000 different phrases, as far as what it says.''
Hudson will be the only molding location for that product, as the company takes advantage of large injection presses being offloaded by sister firm Rubbermaid Home Products Inc. as it ends manufacturing in Wooster, Ohio. The two presses each have more than 1,000 tons of clamping force, said Lavins, who declined to be more specific. Those presses are not operating yet, but should be pumping out the kitchens and other items by fall.
Little Tikes has made trucks for a long time, but lines such as Rugged Riggz and Spark Racerz have design in mind. The firm has hired several new, full-time designers, boosting its internal design staff by 35 percent since last year. The company designs about 85 percent of products internally. It also recently promoted eight-year Little Tikes veteran Jim Ruggiero from design director to vice president of design.
``If you were to look at our trucks 10 years ago, they were somewhat futuristic. They were cool,'' Lavins said. ``They did have a bold look to them. The trucks that we came out with two years ago really built on that and take that to the next level. It's edgy design. ... If you were to go over to the Hong Kong Toy Fair and pick out a truck, you're not going to see something like this.
``Because you don't want us just to be the Country Cottage Playhouse or the Turtle Sandbox,'' Lavins said of earlier products that made the Little Tikes brand name a permanent childhood staple. ``We can't live in that world forever. We've got to grow with the markets and the changes and the needs that moms and kids have out there.''
Kirkendall said the trucks represent Little Tikes' new approach to product development.
``This is a place we can be over the next five years,'' Kirkendall said. ``This isn't a one-trick pony. Instead of it being a one-year platform, it's how do you take something and make it a three-, four- or five-year platform? It's just a different way of looking at it.''