I have no nostalgia for Voltron. I was too old to be sucked into the Voltron craze in the 1980s, but Lego’s recent release of the Voltron kit caught my attention nonetheless. Billed as the “biggest buildable Lego mech ever,” the set comes with 2321 pieces that form a 15-inch-tall model. It is “ideal for display or to recreate the thrilling action from the original 1980s animated Voltron TV series and the modern DreamWorks Voltron: Legendary Defender series,” writes Lego on its website. It’s also ideal for the topic of this week’s Throwback Thursday column.
If you’re not a Voltron devotee, here’s some background that I gleaned by doing some online research. Adapted from Japanese anime, the original Voltron: Defender of the Universe aired in syndication in 1984 and 1985. The series recounted the adventures of five young pilots who commanded five robot lions that could be combined to become Voltron. It was reportedly the top-rated syndicated children’s show for the two years during its initial run and spawned sequels, comic books, all manner of merch, a reboot by DreamWorks and Netflix in 2016 and, now, a Lego figure. And there’s an interesting story behind that.
The origin story of Lego’s Voltron set begins on the company’s Ideas site, where enthusiasts of the plastic bricks can submit ideas for new products. If enough members of the Lego community—10,000 or more, to be precise—support the projects, they enter the Lego Review Process. A review board of set designers and marketing mavens then evaluate the projects, some of which become new Lego products. The initiative has produced an articulated WALL-E and 39-inc- tall replica of the Apollo Saturn V rocket, writes Andrew Liszewski, a dyed-in-the-ABS Lego enthusiast, on the Gizmodo website. The Voltron model was originally submitted by Leandro Tayag, a 41-year-old software developer living in Malaysia, and was significantly tweaked by Lego engineers to meet company standards. It sells for $179.99 on the Lego website.
|Lego's Voltron set comes with 2321 pieces that form a 15-inch-tall model.|
Liszewski notes in his review that the Ideas initiative, which was started in 2008, illustrates a concept that many companies pay lip service to but don’t always fully embrace: Listening to the customer. “There are amateur Lego enthusiasts who are just as talented as the professional master builders the company employs, which is why Lego Ideas (originally known as Lego Cuusoo when it launched) is such a fantastic way to embrace the culture and raw creativity of AFOLs—aka adult fans of Lego,” he writes. That is just one of the reasons that Lego has such a devoted following that grows each time a new generation discovers the creative possibilities embedded in those iconic bricks.
From carpentry to injection molding
The company has had its ups and downs since it was founded in 1932 by a carpenter, Ole Kirk Christiansen, in Billund, Denmark. He started out by producing wooden toys—the word Lego is derived from a Danish phrase that means “play well.” Plastic didn’t enter the picture until 1946, when, “against everyone’s advice, the family invested in a newfangled plastic injection molding machine,” writes Johnny Davis in “How Lego clicked: The super brand that reinvented itself,” published on June 4, 2017, in the Guardian. The iconic brick, as we know it, came along 11 years later. It has been named Toy of the Century twice. From its humble beginnings until 1998, Lego had never posted a loss, writes Davis. “By 2003 it was in big trouble. Sales were down 30% year-on-year and it was $800 million in debt.” The company’s savior came in the form of Vig Knudstorp, “who arrived from management consultants McKinsey & Co. in 2001 and was promoted to boss within three years, aged 36,” writes Davis.