The Lego Group began in the workshop of Ole Kirk Christiansen, a carpenter from Billund, Denmark. Christiansen began creating wooden toys in 1932; the company began calling itself “Lego” two years later in 1934. The company expanded to producing plastic toys in 1940. In 1949, Lego began producing the now-famous interlocking bricks, calling them “Automatic Binding Bricks.” These bricks were based largely on the design of Kiddicraft Self-Locking Bricks, which were released in the UK in 1947. The first Lego bricks, manufactured from cellulose acetate, were developed in the spirit of traditional wooden blocks that could be stacked upon one another; however, these plastic bricks could be “locked” together. They had several round “studs” on top, and a hollow rectangular bottom. The blocks snapped together, but not so tightly that they could not be pulled apart.
The company name Lego was coined by Christiansen from the Danish phrase leg godt, which means “play well”. The name could also be interpreted as “I put together” or “I assemble” in Latin, though this would be a somewhat forced application of the general sense “I collect; I gather; I learn”; the word is most used in the derived sense, “I read”. The cognate Greek verb “λέγω” or “lego” also means “gather, pick up”, but this can include constructing a stone wall.
The Lego Group’s motto is “Only the best is good enough”, a free translation of the Danish phrase Det bedste er ikke for godt. This motto was created by Ole Kirk to encourage his employees never to skimp on quality, a value he believed in strongly. The motto is still used within the company today. A more correct translation into english would be “Even the best isn’t good enough”.
The use of plastic for toy manufacture was not highly regarded by retailers and consumers of the time. Many of the Lego Group’s shipments were returned, following poor sales; it was thought that plastic toys could never replace wooden ones.
By 1954, Christiansen’s son, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, had become the junior managing director of the Lego Group. It was his conversation with an overseas buyer that struck the idea of a toy system. Godtfred saw the immense potential in Lego bricks to become a system for creative play, but the bricks still had some problems from a technical standpoint: their “locking” ability was limited, and they were not very versatile. It was not until 1958 that the modern-day brick design was developed, and it took another five years to find the right material for it. The modern Lego brick was patented on January 28, 1958, and bricks from that year are still compatible with current bricks.
Lego pieces of all varieties are a part of a universal system. Despite variation in the design and purpose of individual pieces over the years, each remains compatible in some way with existing pieces. Lego bricks from 1963 still interlock with those made in 2008, and Lego sets for young children are compatible with those made for teenagers.
Bricks, beams, axles, mini figures, and all other parts in the Lego system are manufactured to an exacting degree of precision. When snapped together, pieces must have just the right amount of strength and flexibility mixed together. They must stay together until pulled apart. They cannot be too easy to pull apart, or the resulting constructions would be unstable; they also cannot be too difficult to pull apart, since the disassembly of one creation in order to build another is part of the Lego appeal. In order for pieces to have just the right “clutch power”, Lego elements are manufactured within a tolerance of 2 µm.
Primary concept and development work takes place at the Billund headquarters, where the company employs approximately 120 designers. The company also has smaller design offices in the UK, Spain, Germany, and Japan, which are tasked with developing products aimed specifically at these markets. The average development period for a new product is around twelve months, in three stages. The first stage is to identify market trends and developments, including contact by the designers directly with the market; some are stationed in toy shops close to holiday periods, while others interview children. The second stage is the design and development of the product based upon the results of the first stage. As of September 2008 the design teams use 3D modeling software such as Rhinoceros 3D to generate CAD drawings from initial design sketches. The designs are then prototyped using an in-house stereolithography machine. These are presented to the entire project team for comment and for testing by parents and children during the “validation” process. Designs may then be altered in accordance with the results from the focus groups. Virtual models of completed Lego products are built concurrently with the writing of the user instructions. Completed CAD models are also used in the wider organization, such as for marketing and packaging.