Lego: Building a stack for an IoT future
During the pandemic, as the world stayed and played and worked at home, Lego saw its operating profits rise by 32%. A survey for the toymaker found 90% of parents said that play helped bring their families together and remain emotionally healthy, especially during prolonged periods of lockdown.
While much of this activity will have comprised of stacking physical Lego bricks, increasingly apps like Lego Digital Designer and more recently, a new partnership between Fortnite producer Epic games, are taking users into the digital and virtual realms.
But physical play still appears as important as ever – with a recent survey finding that 84% of children wished they had more time to play. Little wonder then that 49% of the Danish family-owned company’s portfolio was new in 2021, as demand for its building blocks grows exponentially.
At the centre of this all is a tightly-run production operation, which carries out functions such as moulding, processing, packing and distribution in strategically placed factories that are based close to the 120 countries that its products serve.
According to Jesper Toubøl, vice president, Elements & Moulds at LEGO Group, his factory in Billund, Denmark produced 154.7 billion bricks last year using 20 different materials under tough quality control measures.
Over the past four years, the exec says that the toy company’s production plants have undergone a number of transformational steps to increase digitisation, data collection, connectivity and automation.
Lego applies a similar view to digitisation as it does to its physical products, adds Toubøl – the end goal being to “delight audiences and realise value” with products “always evolving”.
The first step towards digitisation, says Toubøl, was to utilise data to improve its products and processes. In 2018 a team of data engineers began to extract historical production process data from machines and use it to improve the performance of new equipment and product quality.
Machine learning has also been applied to predict quality and yield using real-time prediction analytics to adjust QC processes to achieve optimal output.
Elsewhere, technicians are also using live data visualisation techniques to assess the health of its machines and identify the root cause of any errors.
According to Toubøl, many of these applications have emerged from ideas that operators have had on the shop floor. The company holds regular Dragon’s Den style innovation pitches that invite staff to present ideas to managers and budget holders, listing the resources they need as well as the associated risks and any other stakeholders.
Toubøl adds that Lego’s Digital Visualisation Inspection came out of this process . This app has effectively digitised the QC process, by offering up an index of relevant quality testing parameters depending on the error rate – rather than inspections happening manually and systematically every 16 hours regardless of whether there have been any reported errors or not.
The first DVI app was developed in 2020 and has now been rolled out globally, helping to reduce the number of checks required. The tool is estimated to have the saving potential of 4500 hours a year; interval inspections are now carried out every 24 and 96 hours.
Testing out new products means setting out the parameters and expectations with staff, according to Toubøl. He often produces an image of a fighter pilot jet being refuelled in mid-air to show staff.
“We don’t stop production just because we want to test a new product and these pictures have and been part of the change management journey,” he adds.
Software tests on new products are done in two or three week ‘sprints’ Toubøl adds. “It’s the same as tyre change on a Formula One car – you do it super-fast so you get products out and being tested on the floor in the right way.
He adds: “Rigid planning and rehearsal enables the team to perform the task in a very short time – ensuring that critical resources are seized for a minimum of time with maximum impact.”
When operators are pitching their ideas to management they need to estimate how many of these ‘sprints’ they think their product development will take.
Another idea to come out of Lego’s version of Dragon’s Den is the devices used by factories operators to monitor equipment and processes: they’re all stripped out iPhones, so there’s a zero barrier to entry for factory workers who need to use them.
Connectivity and automation roadmap
Globally, Lego has 3,000 moulding machines which are used to create its legendary bricks. According to Toubøl “the eventual ambition is to have these all connected so that we can communicate with them and extract data.”
However, the factory exec adds that they’re not there yet. “While we decided that all machines and auxiliary equipment should be connected, that was easy to say but a very hard job to do – and we’re still not getting everything connected – but we have a picture of how we should do it,” he adds.
The first steps towards connectivity have been taken, however. The process started in 2018, laying down the network infrastructure – all the routers and servers – in the moulding factory halls – to make it easier for engineers to physically connect any new equipment.
The next step was upping connectivity so that it was possible to remotely access the machines and the data – which involved supporting multiple types of equipment and sensors.
What the team is working on now and for the future is self-identifying device entities and inter-machine communication.
Lego produces 370 billion boxes of bricks, in various sets, every year, which although a triumph for productivity is also a hell of a lot of plastic.
The toy company – which has upped its use of solar panel and renewable energy in its plants by 98% since 2020, has also announced that by 2025 it hopes to stop using singe use plastic – replacing its foil Lego packs with paper.
“We need to rebuild the whole production process to do that because foil and paper have a different way of working,” Toubøl points out.
The firm also intends to use plant-based plastic products including new flexible tree and bush pieces made from polyethylene using ethanol from sugarcane, instead of using chemicals from oil. “By 2032 we want to be totally out of crude oil,” Toubøl adds.
Last year the firm also announced its first prototype brick made from recycled material “They are made out of recycled plastic bottles and we’re testing them at the moment,” Toubøl confirms – adding that main challenge consumer expectations: “They will expect the bricks to remain the same, despite the change of plastic.”
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