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Lego (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

The Lego toy company has hit hard times. In the last five years they've had lost millions, cut their work force by twenty percent, and are currently in a sales slump, beaten by modern toys.

Seeing Lego decline is hard for me to watch. I'm from a transitional generation that saw Lego replace the building sets made of nuts, bolts and perforated metal strips - called Erector sets in American, and Meccano elsewhere. I recall how old-fashioned that metal toy looked next to a neat, clean plastic Lego brick. And I realize now, that at the time to adults a Lego brick suggested the simple, futuristic design of Scandinavia.

From an engineering viewpoint the bricks were pure genius as a toy: They are safe, hygenic, even pleasing to the eye, and just the right size for a child to handle. The brick opened up the technological imagination: You can combine six Lego bricks in an amazingly precise one hundred, two million, nine hundred eighty-one thousand, five hundred ways. Less specifically that's just over one hundred million ways.

Even today, a Lego brick still looks to my eye like a kind of high tech toy, but that's true only to a person of my age. The play lives of children around the world have been revolutionized in the last twenty years. How could a Lego brick look the least bit futuristic in this electronic age. The captivating world of Game Boy and XBox have displaced snapping together two bricks.

At first, it looked as if Lego would thrive in this new age. Sales grew through the 80s, but it wasn't due to innovation. The brick is the same down to the type of plastic used as when introduced in 1958. During the 80s the Lego company confused growth with success. The growing sales reflected the globalization of Lego, spreading where it hadn't been before, but not increasing market share anywhere. Not surprisingly, this has come to a stop and sales have now slumped.

Lego bricks are now hard to find. Go to a store and try to find Lego bricks, instead you'll find "Lego Kits" that seem more like models. You see, Lego has partnered with movie makers to create tie-ins: Star Wars vehicles, and Harry Potter toys.

In spite of the pressures, Lego will be around a bit longer. They may not be growing right now, but still even with the hard times, a Lego set is sold somewhere in the world every seven seconds and every year they manufacture twenty billion pieces.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises