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Old toy looks to show kids some new tricks

Peter Kenter
Old toy looks to show kids some new tricks
Spin Master

There’s nothing quite so Canadian as hockey, maple syrup and… Meccano? Acquired by Canadian toy company Spin Master Ltd., the steel building sets will soon become part of an effort to inspire students to become engineers and builders.

Meccano at its most basic is an erector toy set made up of reusable metal strips, plates, wheels, axles, gears, pulleys, nuts, bolts and wrenches used to create buildings, vehicles and machines. Paired with electric motors and even miniature steam engines, the complex models become mobile.

The toy was invented in England by Frank Hornby more than a century ago, allowing his sons to build crane models after the real-life machines they had seen loading and unloading ships in Liverpool. The product was first marketed under the trade name "Mechanics Made Easy" in 1901 and became the more familiar Meccano in 1907.

Popular worldwide, Meccano factories were built in England, the U.S., Germany, France, Spain and Argentina. Meccano societies sprung up across the globe, including the Canadian Modeling Association for Meccano and Allied Systems. However, following a series of acquisitions, the brand eventually fell on hard times.

"Meccano is one of the few heritage brands that was available to buy and is one of the oldest toys still in existence," says Lawrence Rabie, a consultant to Spin Master. "We jumped at the chance to buy it in 2013."

Meccano continues to be manufactured in France where kits have been produced since 1920. However, Spin Master reinvigorated the brand with the creation of the Meccanoid G15 KS, a personal robot kit that won the audience award at the Last Gadget Standing Showdown at the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Meccanoid can walk, speak, recognize voices and mirror the motions of the user, among other feats.

"We needed to use lightweight components for the robot, so we largely used polycarbonate components," says Rabie. "However, we’re also continuing to manufacture the traditional steel pieces which can be put together using nuts and bolts."

Any Meccano component ever manufactured will continue to be compatible with new sets, although brass screws — which contain lead — are now out of the picture. The sets will also feature more ergonomic and modular tools, hi-tech fabrics, electric motors and digital programming features.

But there’s more than just fun at stake.

"There’s a real dearth of interest in structural engineering right now," says Rabie. "It’s a fundamental flaw in our education system. Kids these days don’t even know the principles behind the way a wheelbarrow works or what a wrench and spanner are for. The educators are aware of this problem and that it needs to be fixed."

Meccano will continue to stress engineering, with new kits offering instructions on how to build classic machines and structures, such as bridges, elevators and pulley systems.

Beginning this year, Spin Master will also offer Meccano-based educational programs on engineering to students in Grades 1 to 8 at 130 Ontario schools. The schools will be required to purchase about $30 worth of Meccano kits and will then receive the three-hour engineering course at no cost.

"We hope to expand to 500 schools the year after that and then to 2,000," says Rabie. "Eventually we’d like to make the course available everywhere there’s Meccano. We hope that, by going old school with the students, we can inspire the next generation of structural engineers."

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