HK firm ensures toy safety with PLM tool

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Toys are fun to play with, but making them is serious business. Hazardous toys from Greater China make great headline-material for US media, so regional toy manufacturers must make extra efforts to ensure that both their materials and finished products are safe.

Hong Kong-based WahShing Toys understands this. The firm recently turned to Oracle's Agile product lifecycle management (PLM) software to keep track of the chemical components in their toy materials.

"Toys are designed for kids and safety is top priority," said Takao Kubo, executive director of the R&D, engineering and QA departments at WahShing Toys. "If our toy designers select materials with components hazardous to health, our business will suffer."

WahShing Toys has 30 years of experience in the toy OEM business. During the past decade, it expanded to include original design manufacturing (ODM). ODM raises the company's competitiveness by helping its customers to design, implement, and source materials from a basic toy idea. But the transformation has brought additional risk.

Navigating a minefield

The company is now responsible and accountable for selecting toy materials. But the process of toy material selection is like a minefield. According to Kubo, every single material of a toy--from electronic circuit-boards to screw sizes--must be carefully selected.

"If the screw size is too small, it might easily fall out and a child might accidentally swallow it," he said. "But if it's too long, it may create sharp edges, which are also hazardous."

Governments from different countries have strengthened their regulatory requirements for toys, on everything from the materials used to component-documentation. Even the dye used for coloring and the oil used for softening the plastic must be listed.

"We produce and design 600-800 different toys annually and each may consist of as many as 100 different," he said. Further complicating the process, WahShing's three engineering teams (located at different manufacturing sites) hadn't standardized naming conventions.

To make matters worse, engineering teams producing toys from movie characters must sign confidentiality agreements on both the character and the material used. "This further discouraged communication about materials between the engineering teams," said Kubo.

Start with standards

To standardize the toy material definitions, WahShing turned to Oracle's Agile. But engineers were accustomed to listing their toy material specifications on paper. Now they do so electronically, via a selection menu. "It was difficult at first to convince the engineers," said Kubo, "but the team leaders quickly understood the benefit of standardized data and started encouraging their teams to use the system."

But standardization was only part of the project--Kubo said the company also leveraged features in Agile to develop a knowledge database. The database provides information about materials and their components (like the oil), but also keeps track of the product development process.

"For example, a toy gun is supposed to shoot for 10 meters, but our prototype only shoots five meters--we then need to modify the mechanism," he said. "The entire process is now tracked, so other engineering teams follow it can speed up the toy development process."

Kubo said they are aiming to shorten the time required for toy debugging and fine tuning by one month after implementing Agile. He added the company has currently completed phase two of the project, which is to manage workload and scheduling for the different engineering teams.

As they enter the third phase: integrating Agile with the company's ERP system--also supported by Oracle--Kubo expects to achieve cost-efficiency.

"Only after we have reduced development time and optimized our workloads through phase one and two, the complete value can be revealed," he said.

This story, "HK firm ensures toy safety with PLM tool" was originally published by Computerworld Hong Kong.

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