Autobots Assembled: How Transformers Come To Life

Autobots Assembled: How Transformers Come To Life

Transformers. There’s maybe no more iconic toy, especially if you’re a child of the ’80s and ’90s. And while the memories of making them shapeshift are indelible, the process of actually building one from scratch is far more involved (or exactly as involved, if you spent your entire childhood dreaming of this) as you’d imagine. We were fortunate enough to get a peek behind the curtain of where everyone from Optimus Prime to Megatron dreamed up, designed, and brought to life.

So how are Transformers conceived? A lot like many humans, it seems: with some rough play and an exchange of body parts. At least, that’s how Transformers Senior Design Director Josh Lamb and Product Designer Lenny Panzica did it, as we sat down with them in a workshop at Transformers HQ just outside Providence, Rhode Island, and started tearing apart old Zoids and Transformers.

Robots in Design

Hasbro’s headquarters are home to the design teams for some of the most popular toys in the world: Star Wars, Marvel, My Little Pony — all the way down to Scrabble and Monopoly. We’re in a conference room, away from the cramped offices where the teams work on hundreds of designs every year, and the team has laid out the evolution of a few the new Beast Wars Transformers, from conception to final models. And that process kicked off, like most do, with the dismemberment of a battalion of old robots.

The only thing Lamb and Panzica, who headed design for Beast Wars, knew for sure going in was that the robots had to be, well, beasts. Everything else was fair game. So they ripped apart previous generations of Transformer toys — painted grey, so they were just working with the geometry of the pieces — and went about Frankensteining them back together into new creations. A Zoid head might end up on an old Optimus body, or Starscream’s arms might wind up on a body with a Tyrannosaurus head and a dragon’s tail. Which, yes, is as fun as it sounds.

Once some general concepts were in place for each figure, Panzica sketched up how the final products might look. That’s harder than it sounds; remember, he’s figuring out the key features for multiple modes of being. Will the dragon spit fire missiles? What kinds of features you can cram into one form without screwing up the other? The one constant to the process? The robot comes last:

“You get your alt mode (the vehicle or animal mode) first, and then reverse it into the robot,” Panzica explains. “With a normal transformation, you know the basics. The tires can fold back and expose the feet, or you can make the chest into the head for the robot.”

This means free-drawing how you want both modes to look, and more importantly, what features you’re going to include, and how those mechanisms are going to work.

“For Predaking, we were going to originally have a fire breath for the dragon, but that turned out to be a problem mechanically for the robot form,” Panzica says. “So we started thinking, what’s better than a dragon with one fire breathing head? A dragon with three heads!” And just like that, the robot dragon had three heads instead of one. It’s a gentle reminder that for all the real design work that goes into these — both Panzica and Lamb went through the competitive Fashion Institute of Technology Toy Design program — they’re still, at their core, toys for kids long on imagination who aren’t questioning the logic of why the dragon from Cybertron has so many heads.

Panzica’s been around long enough that he knows intuitively what pieces can go where. For example, when he was sketching out Predaking, he knew where the head would be, and that the tail could be used as a weapon — as could the additional heads — and that the arms and legs were more or less already in place. A chest in one mode becomes a back in the other, wings can stay wings; these are things you intuit pretty easily while playing with a Transformer, but take considerable foresight while mocking up two separate designs from scratch.

Making It Work

Hasbro works closely with venerable Japanese toy company Takara Tomy, which it has partnered with since 1984, when the two first brought Takara’s Transformers to the United States. Takara handles the actual engineering of the parts, along with scale and articulation, but the design process is a back and forth between the folks in Japan and Rhode Island.

While the aesthetics and concepts of the design process take place at Hasbro, Takara is still the CPU crunching the numbers on how to actually make these things work. The recent Triple Changers announced at Toy Fair, for example were the product of Takara mastery. Triple Changers are Transformers with three modes instead of the standard two, and are traditionally a huge pain in the arse to engineer for all the reasons you would expect.

“They took about twice as long to develop as a typical Transformer,” says Lamb, who’s been with Hasbro since the mid-90s, when Kenner and the Star Wars toy line were acquired. “But usually you get two modes that are great, and the last one is, ehhh, sure, it works. Not here. All three are awesome.”

Indeed, the troublesome triple changers — and notably the new 24-inch Metroplex — were strong enough that they even got the nod of approval from legendary Transformers guru Hideaki Yoke (Yoke-san to Transformers nerds), who still blows through from time to time to pass judgment on the newer creations.

Piece by Piece (by Piece)

That’s not to say Takara goes it alone once a Transformer goes into assembly; the collaboration just kicks into overdrive. Panzica’s Japanese counterpart, for example, might send back a proposal to ditch a joint that doesn’t seem necessary, or add a millimetre of depth to a piece that will be under a particular amount of stress during the transformation. Design flourishes are added here — does that forearm need some more spikes? — and the complexity of the individual molds will get more or less involved. Or maybe Lenny wants to shift a piece that’s set to be ABS plastic — the standard, colourful plastic that can withstand the whims of the average toddler — and change it to PVC. Materials matter, and for Transformers, they matter more than most.

The pieces are laid out in what’s called a mould breakdown, which shows every individual piece that goes into the toy. It breaks down by material, mould type, and colour. The Hasbro and Tanaka designers will then hunch over the breakdown for days at a time to figure out how to make the coolest, most fun, and best quality toy without sticking so many materials into it that it costs as much as a PlayStation.

It might sound like a boring phase — pushing numbers back and forth, more or less — but this is really the heart of making toys that don’t feel like junk. Pick the wrong type of plastic for an arm, or make a wing piece a few millimeters too thin, and kids will be able to tell. “As a kid, you knew which knew which if your toys were really well made and which were a little junkier,” Lamb says. “We do our best to make the quality stuff.”

You’ll use a softer PVC plastic for the sharper details on a toy, for example, so that they’ll bend a bit instead of simply impaling your dad’s foot during a midnight bathroom run. But for joints, you’ll use celcon plastic, which is strong enough to trust with critical moving parts on Transformers, but can’t be painted. And no, no metallic paint jobs, either. They’re pretty, but the infusion of the metallic paint was causing the plastic to weaken and become too brittle.

“We’re always mindful of how many molds we’re using, how much plastic, how many colour breaks, even package size” Lamb says. “Each of those add cost, and while we obviously need to hit costs, we do our best to make sure you’ve never got a Transformer that feels cheap.”

That’s why you won’t see any metal Transformers any time soon, outside of possible limited collector’s editions. They just cost too much to produce. “We’ve looked at metal and die-cast, but the cost has skyrocketed,” Lamb says. He hinted at some limited edition vac-metal editions coming soon, but don’t hold your breath for any major changes to materials on the main line Transformers. “We’ll do new plastics to solve a problem,” he said, “but we’d never really highlight it.”

Autobots, Assemble!

Once all that’s taken care of, the plans get shipped across the street for the model stage. Which means it’s time to actually build the thing.

At this point, the Transformer is nearly complete. It’s made into a CAD drawing that’s to scale and will transform functionally if assembled. But unlike traditional action figures, which would get a sculptor to etch out the details on the new piece, Transformers prototypes are literally grown in Hasbro’s on-site workshop. It’s a former factory, where some of the first G.I. Joe action figures were manufactured, and remains now as a sort of incubator for one-off toy prototypes. We’ll have a more complete look inside the workshop tomorrow, but suffice to say it uses some of the most advanced 3D-printing gear in the world, ranging from repurposed jewelry-making rigs to specially designed do-it-all machines that crank out toy parts as simply as an office printer spews TPS reports.

Once a prototype is fully assembled, it goes two places. First, it heads to a master model maker, who will poke and prod at all the functionality, and if anything’s a little too loose, or at all janky, he’ll adjust the CAD drawing accordingly, and try again. It’s basically a one-man QA process.

After that, it heads over to Mark Maher, who hand-paints each master sample Transformer before it goes into mass production. The figure on the back of every Transformers box? It was painted here in Providence. We’ll check in more with Maher, a former graffiti artist, tomorrow too, but he might be the biggest fanboy on the whole campus. He couldn’t wait to get in front of a camera, yank down the neck of his t-shirt, and show everyone the Autobot logo tattooed right over his heart.

And from there, it’s off to the factories. The toys themselves are manufactured off-site, which is just as well; by this point, everyone’s already knee-deep in starting the whole process again several times over.

Trial By Five-Year-Olds

Transformers designers at Hasbro are typically working on about 200 figures at any given time, ranging from products that are coming up that year, to ones that won’t be seen for two or three more years. “We’re predicting what kids will be playing with in 2015,” says Lamb. It isn’t easy.

In fact, it’s hard enough to figure out what kids like right now. To that end, Hasbro has set up what it calls the “Fun Lab” at its Providence location. Here, local kids from grade schools, middle schools, and daycares are ferried in — after their parents sign strict non-disclosure agreements — and given the toys of the future to mess around with. There’s some structure to the sessions, but mostly, they just revolve around a simple idea: Figure out what’s fun.

The design process is hugely informed by what goes on in these play sessions. If a bunch of kids all agree that beast Transformers biting stuff is awesome, or that fighter jets without missiles are idiotic — these are “play patterns,” in toymaker parlance — Lenny will be armed with that information going in. These are focus groups, more or less, but with audiences that are uniquely qualified to give answers — Hey, is this toy fun to play with or not fun to play with? — instead of a room full of grownups who just happen to have a bunch of free time during the middle of the day.

It’s a little like a Willy Wonka’s Toy Factory hidden away in the middle of New England, right down to the litigiousness. “What happens if a kid signs the thing and then tells someone?” a student asked a Hasbro PR representative at a recent career day. (Hasbro employees are always a hit, shockingly.) “We’d sue them,” the rep deadpanned to me. That sounds extreme, but when you consider that basically every planned product the company is working on is being paraded in front of and prodded by a bunch of kids sipping on Capri Suns, you sort of get it.

We weren’t allowed on-site at the Fun Lab when we visited because they hadn’t been prepped for our arrival. We asked if we could ditch the cameras and just pop our heads in, but no dice. It’s that secretive. “Stuff being tested in there won’t be out until 2015, 2016,” a PR rep told me. Still, it’s crucial step for Transformers in particular.

So what will the next generation of Transformers look like? You can help decide for yourself by voting in a new poll Hasbro just released. But in a broader sense, the Transformers of the future will be built the same way the Transformers of the past have been: figuring out what works, what’s fun, and how to balance the two into pliable playtime perfection.