Parents who lavish their kids with playthings look fondly at wood and metal cars, blocks, and trains, but plastic rules the toy industry and has for decades. In the 1930s, Germany was the top supplier, but other plastic toy manufacturers, USA-based for the most part, took over production as the world fell into war. Taking off after World War II, firms such as Fisher-Price made their whole product line from resins and were soon followed by Ideal, Hasbro, Mattel, and others.
Today, according to a report in Plastics Magazine, plastic toys comprise 90% of the market, as the material offers appealing colour, durability, strength, and the intangible element of "playability." Even toys that promote child development, such as building sets, board games, and more complex interactive items with moving parts and electronics have moved to light, strong, easily-dyeable resin-based material. Some popular toy brands such as LEGO and Playmobil have always been made from this material.
As the industry has turned to plastic, many aspects of the business have changed.
Where toys are made: Faced with rising costs, manufacturers sent production overseas, while still maintaining control over design, research and development, marketing, and corporate support. In 2010, the U.S. imported $21.427 billion worth of toys, with $18.98 million or 88% coming from China, $692,406 from Japan, $39,744 from Mexico, $278,733 from Denmark, $240,197 from Canada, and the balance coming from other countries in the Far East.
Where U.S. products go: In 2010, the U.S. exported $1.5 billion worth of toys, with the largest number going to Canada, followed by Paraguay, Mexico, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom.
Tariffs: Since 1999, there have been no tariffs on toys going to and from Uruguay, the European Union, Japan, and Korea. Trade between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico is duty-free due to NAFTA. Tariffs with China ended in 2005. Many other countries in South America and elsewhere still have a high tariff structure in place.
Materials used to for playthings: Plastic dominates toy production, but specific types of polymers, copolymers, and homopolymers are used for certain types of toys. While polypropylenes (PP) are used in educational games, tricycles, and carriers, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is the material of choice for dolls. Other common materials include polyethylenes (PE) (dolls, telephones, pull toys, outdoor furniture and bikes), elastomers (baby playthings), polyamides (PA) for replica items, polystyrenes (PS) (components and structures, rattles, puzzles). Since the industry must be very innovative to keep up with changing consumer demand, plastic toy manufacturers, USA-based and elsewhere, are constantly experimenting with new resins to create the next hot toy.
Regulatory demands: The toy business is subject to many regulations and recalls. In particular, items made in China have come under fire after lead and dangerous chemicals were discovered not only in the paint, but even in the base material used in the body of the toy. Since many companies outsource their production to China, the whole industry has been impacted.
Any producer has to deal with differing regulations between countries. For example, phthalates, used in soft chewables (i.e., rubber ducks and teething rings), have been banned in Europe and the US for years, but not in Canada. This has caused an outcry from Canadian consumer groups, which has resulted in many companies adopting a voluntary ban on phthalates. Although this ban is not mandatory, manufacturers who still use phthalates must make sure that their products intended for export do not contain them in order to comply with international regulations.
U.S.-based companies and other foreign manufacturers seek to keep costs low while ensuring that creativity and quality remain high. While China is likely to be viewed as a quality producer in 20 years, current concerns may further damage industry reputation. There is ample opportunity for other producing nations, such as Canada, to assume a larger role in making toys for export.
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