The Design Process of Transformers Toys

If you've ever wondered how they design Transformers toys, you're in luck.
Christopher McFadden

Have you ever wondered how they designed the original Transformers toys? Perhaps you are a child of the '80s or have small children who crave these toys and would love to know the secrets behind their design?

If the former, you may have fond memories of owning your very own Optimus Prime or may even marvel at the wonders of combiners like Superion!

Seeing your favorite character in "real life" may have been a life-altering experience, perhaps even encouraging a long-lasting love of engineering.  


You may not have given the engineering behind them a second thought at the time, but have you since wondered how they were designed?

Let's take a quick look behind the scenes at Hasbro.


designing transformer toys optimus prime
Source: Hiroyuki Obara/Wikimedia Commons

Designing dreams: how a Transformers toy is designed

Gizmodo recently had special access to Hasbro's headquarters and, more importantly, their toy design team. These guys design toys from most of the big films and make some of the most popular toys in the world.

You can watch the full video here

From Star Wars and Marvel to Monopoly and Scrabble games, these designers are involved in creating some of the world's most popular toys. So, it seems like the right place to get the "inside" information we are looking for!

The old range of "Beast Wars" toys started out as a rough idea of what the characters would look like. From there, the design teams took old parts of toys, painted them gray, so they were only focussed on the geometry of the pieces, and not their characterization, and reassembled them to create rough prototypes of the new characters.

This might sound like sacrilege to some but to others, it is a dream come true! Imagine being able to let your imagination run riot and build a Starscream with a T-Rex head? Imagine the possibilities. 

With the general concept in place, the team drew up final concepts for the model. This may sound easy, after all, hasn't the hard work been completed with the pieces?

designing transformer toys real
Source: herval/Flickr

Far from it, as it turns out, the designers need to figure out the key features of each new Transformers.

Will it fire missiles? Will it have multiple modes other than car and robot for example? These features also need to not interfere with one another -- as you can imagine.

There is one key constant to the process, however. The robot form comes last!

"You get your alt mode (the vehicle or animal mode) first, and then reverse it into the robot", "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." Product Designer Lenny Panzica explains.

More than meets the eye: making a Transformers toy

This process requires the team to free draw all modes of the robot. They also, critically, need to figure out which features need to be included, and which omitted.

transformer toys lineup
Source: Kelvin Servigon/Flickr

More importantly, they need to work out the mechanisms for the toy to actually work.

Panzica explains the difficulties of this - "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", "So we started thinking, what's better than a dragon with one fire-breathing head? A dragon with three heads!"

Great, who says you need to grow up once you get a "real job."

The designers at Hasbro have been at this for a long time and certain design features can generally be guessed at with some accuracy before finalizing the design.

Sticking with "Predaking," they knew where the head would be, that the tail would be a weapon, etc. Pieces of the chest would be the back of another mode and the wings can stay as wings.

The intuitive final model that children, or adults, have little problem working out does belie the work that has gone into the design, however.

designing transformer toys
1st Generation "Grimlock" Transformer toy.  Source: Transformers Wikia

Engineering of the Transformers toys

Much like designing a building, how the toy works is down to the engineering team. For Hasbro, they have worked with Japanese company Takara Tomy since 1984.

These guys deal with the actual engineering of the parts, from the size, to the articulation of the joints, etc. As you can imagine, there is a constant liaison between the two companies. You can say that Takara are the guys who make the magic happen.

Triple changers, for example, are much more complex compared to "standard" dual changers and take much longer to finalize.

"They took about twice as long to develop as a typical Transformer," says Transformers Senior Design Director Josh Lamb of Hasbro. He's been with Hasbro since the mid-90s, "But usually you get two modes that are great, and the last one is, ehhh, sure, it works. Not here. All three are awesome."

designing transformer toys

The materials used in the toys are also given heavy consideration. Soft plastics are used for decorative bits. Moving parts require much sturdier plastic for obvious reasons. Transformers toys generally lack metal parts due to the cost of production, which they want to keep as low as possible.

Limited Collector's Editions are the exception, but customers pay a premium for these ones!

Making a Transformers toy

Once the design and mechanics are sorted out the prototype is almost complete. The piece is designed to scale using CAD, with animations of its transformation process once assembled. Modern Transformers prototypes are 3D-printed and once they're made, they undergo extensive testing by a master model maker.

It is their job to play around with the model and check for jerky joints or loose pieces. The entire 3D design is then tweaked to perfection.

designing transformers bookshelf
Source: timdeer/Flickr

With all the wrinkles sorted out, the model is given to skilled artists like Mark Maher. This chap hand paints each master prototype before it goes into mass production.  

Before we see them on the shelves, there is one last test for the Transformers toy, trial by children. Hasbro has what they term a "Fun Lab" where local children get to play with the freshly produced toys to destruction.

Feedback from the kids is the final tweak needed for the team, and they update the design accordingly. They want them to be as fun as possible, of course!

With the toy passing the "Fun Lab" test, the product can be mass-produced, packaged, marketed, and shipped to a toy store near you. 

It is fascinating to see the amount of hard work to goes into the design and creation of one of the world's most popular children's toys. So much so, that we doubt you'll ever look at one the same way ever again. 

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