A toy that’s “Made in the U.S.A.”? These days, that might sound like a contradiction in terms, what with so many playthings produced in Asia. Yet, it turns out that one of the most innovative, stimulating, and just plain fun toys in the stores is just that - made in America, with pride, unmatched quality, and total commitment to environmental responsibility, no less.
It’s K’NEX, a construction system comprising hundreds of different building blocks that children of all ages can use to create everything from fully-functional robots to model racetracks to working roller-coasters to ... well, you name it. And every single K’NEX rod, connector and brick - some 30 Billion - have been manufactured in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, just north of Philadelphia. They then travel to over 40 different countries around the world as the various K'NEX construction systems.
This marriage of fun and function started more than 50 years ago when The Rodon Group was founded as a company specializing in a manufacturing process called plastic injection molding. Injection molding was hardly new back then - it actually dates to the 19th century - but Rodon’s founders saw an opportunity to take the process to another level - to make it much easier, that is, to create large quantities of even extra-small parts with unheard-of quality. Until then, the small injection-molded parts were plagued by a host of flaws - bubbles in the plastic, imperfect shapes, and so forth - which greatly limited the yield, or portion of usable parts, in every manufacturing batch. That kept prices high and applications limited.
Big improvements in quality called for new methods and new machines, and ever since its founding in 1956, The Rodon Group has led its industry in innovation. In recent years, computer-aided design, robotics and process control have been of particular importance.
Still, it was some years before a brainstorm led to the invention of the K’NEX building system and The Rodon Group’s rise to success in the vast, worldwide toy industry. The lightbulb went on, so to speak, at a large, noisy wedding (is there any other kind?!), where Rodon's Joel Glickman was idly playing with plastic drinking straws. By adding a “connector” part, he suddenly realized, one might construct all sorts of things from lengths of straw.
Mr. Glickman tinkered some more, refined his idea, and started test production. When established toy companies declined to pick up his idea, The Rodon Group stepped in. In 1992, Mr. Glickman and his brother Bob - both sons of The Rodon Group's original owner - co-founded K’NEX Brands to aggressively commercialize the product. And the two companies remain a family affair, with The Rodon Group operating as a wholly-owned subsidiary of K'NEX Brands.
And to this day, it’s because of The Rodon Group’s mastery of precision injection molding that K’NEX is one of the only toy companies that makes a majority of toys here in America. In many different industries, from automotive to electronics to healthcare, manufacturers turn to Rodon for the best in injection molded parts. They can’t afford the risks of outsourcing work to offshore suppliers, which generally cannot match Rodon’s 99.8% parts-quality rating or its close relationships with suppliers of the best raw materials, for instance.
featured photo by thebigdurian