Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Assembly Required

My oldest son, Number One, recently celebrated his sixth birthday, and received a transforming robot “kit” from his grandparents. On the outside of the exciting multi-colored box it showed the robot, standing proud and looking for adventure, and it displayed the two other “modes” that he could turn into, namely an airplane and a scorpion. It was solar powered and motorized to move on its own. The outside of the box looked like any 6-year-old’s dream. The inside of the box was another matter entirely.

We knew there was “assembly required,” because one of the fun features of the toy was that you got to “build it yourself.” I was excited about having a father-son activity where he could gain experience building something mechanical. He tore open the box and spread the contents out and on the table. I took one look at the inventory, and in as calm a voice as I could muster, asked him to put his hands on his head and slowly back away from the toy. The plan had changed. The largest thing in the box, by a wide margin, was the instruction manual. That’s never a good sign.

There were three plastic bags containing screws so small you could lose them all at once with a good sneeze. There were tiny plastic gears, a half-inch in diameter, with little drive shafts, no thicker than a paper clip. There was a one-inch-square solar panel connected to the smallest motor I have ever seen. The motor was no more than 3/8 of an inch long and less than ¼ inch round. It was tethered to the solar panel with two four-inch-long wires roughly the thickness of human hairs.

There were two rafts of plastic parts, containing roughly 80 parts each, all still attached to their spider web of molded plastic anchor points. Some of the parts were so small I was really not sure where I needed to cut to get them free. “Is that a part that I need, or is that the piece I’m supposed to cut off? I can’t tell!”

I was flabbergasted by how complicated and technical this child’s toy was, so I took another look at the box. It advertized that the toy was for ages 10 to adult, with the added caveat that no child under 4 was to get within a 50-foot radius of any of the small parts. I agreed wholeheartedly with the lower age limit, but not because I was worried about a choking incident. There was no part of the entire assembly large enough to choke a child. An infant could have swallowed the motor whole, no problem. I figured the warning was simply to give you a fighting chance of ending up with all the pieces you needed to make it work. To that end, it should really have read “no child under 18.”

I took serious issue with the 10 and up rating, however. I am 38 years old, I have an engineering degree, and I have been designing and assembling mechanical apparatuses professionally for over 20 years, and I had grave reservations about my ability to complete the task. I contend that there is no 10-year-old on this planet with the patience, forethought, dexterity, motor skills, mechanical knowledge, or even the proper tools to assemble one of these things.

There would be no father-son activity today. Involving a 6-year-old in this project would have been like asking Mike Tyson to tune your Stradivarius violin. Wrong guy for the job. I locked the door to the room and went to work.

Step 1 had me pressing the pinion gear onto the motor shaft. The gear was half the size of a pencil eraser, and the motor’s shaft was the diameter of a gnat’s eyelash. It was a “press fit” so the gear wouldn’t slip on the shaft, and I had to push it down as hard as my fingers could press to get it on, without accidentally bending the miniscule shaft. Ten-year-olds were disqualified on the first step.

In steps 12 through 18 I threaded two of the tiniest wires I have ever seen through an obstacle course of plastic needle-holes, snapping the assembly together as I went, making sure not to sever either of the wires accidentally by pinching them or looking at them the wrong way.

In step 35 I assembled a quadruple-reduction, eight-gear transmission inside a shrouded plastic housing. It was the plastic robot equivalent of the ship in a bottle, only the ship was the size of your fingernail, and the bottle wasn’t see-through.

In step 114 I had to go to the garage and find my straight shaft #0 Phillips head screwdriver in my specialty tool kit. Do you have a straight shaft #0 Phillips head screwdriver? No? Well, you would have been dead in the water at step 114.

In step 254 I assembled a double offset cam and linkage system that would have made Leonardo da Vinci weep with joy.

In step 316 I wept. Not with joy.

In step 496 I split an atom.

In step 513 I snapped together the last piece, and marveled at how small it was.

The entire robot, tip to toe was only 3-1/2 inches tall. It took me 1-1/2 hours to assemble it. That’s almost a half-hour per inch.

I unlocked the door and went out to display my accomplishment with pride.

“What took you so long?” was the only response from my wife.

I went back in and re-locked the door until I calmed down.

When I had regained my composure, I came back out and handed Number One his new toy. He and his middle brother, Number Two, went outside to set it in the sun, and cheered as they watched it walk down the sidewalk. Then they brought it inside and tore one of its legs off while calmly discussing who should be allowed to play with it next. It lasted 7-1/2 minutes.

Maybe we don’t need that leg for airplane mode…

This was quite a “toy.” I was just barely old enough to assemble it, and my boys were at least a decade too young to play with it. I think the box should really read, “Must be a 45-year-old aerospace engineer to assemble, and must be at least 35 to operate.”

I’ll give it one thing, though. At least it didn’t require any batteries.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

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  1. I'll call Dick and Donna and tell them that grandparents should pay more attention to the "age appropriate" labels on toys :)


  2. That's Hysterical!!!! Oh I can't wait to be that grandparent someday! :)