Monday, April 26, 2010

10 Years Old Again

For such a small country the Danes certainly punch above their weight when it comes to contributions to world culture. Even as a child I was surrounded by a cavalcade of Danish imports: Hans Christian Anderson and his stories; Thor and his Viking hordes; Brian Laudrup and his magic right foot; sizzling bacon in a full English breakfast; and Sandi Toksvig on childrens' TV (OK, scraping the bottom of the barrel with that last one). But no Danish invention has made a bigger impression on the world than a collection of coloured, moulded plastic. Welcome to the home of Lego.

A Lego model of an oil platform (sponsored by the Danish energy company DONG) for my old colleagues in London.

Invented back in the 1940s the interlocking plastic blocks have become an integral part of a Western childhood. The company headquarters and main factory are located in the small, sleepy town in Billund in the middle of Jutland, which, with its population of 6000, has barely more inhabitants than Lego's workforce. But such is the power of the toy titan that Billund's airport is the second busiest in Denmark and that the Legoland amusement park is the most visited tourist attraction in the country outside of Copenhagen. Since I was passing so close, and in the interests of cultural and anthropological research, I considered it my duty to check it out.

Because Lego is such a large employer in the region it is common to find people who have connections to the company. So I was doubly lucky to meet both Tina and Anita. I stayed with Anita - who works for Lego's marketing department and gets to see all the new, top secret model developments before they are released - in the small town of Jelling. She helped inveigle me into the Legoland amusement park. It has a handful of rides but I wasn't at all interested in them, partly because they are quite pedestrian and partly because I was alone (you feel like a right Charlie going on a rollercoaster on your own). Instead I was drawn to the huge, yet intricate, models of cityscapes and buildings, with many elaborate moving parts and made up of millions of simple pieces. It is these vignettes that encapsulate the beauty of Lego: that with a little imagination (and plenty of time) you can create just about anything, from the Statue of Liberty to a Dutch landscape complete with canals, windmills and boats. I was also astonished, for quite separate reasons, by the Lego shop. Of course it's customary for such amusement parks to milk their visitors with trinkets, toys and souvenirs, and I loved the fact that you could buy individual pieces from rows of jars, just like in an old-fashioned sweet shop, but the prices were astronomical. I played a game to find the most expensive item and came up with the Star Wars Millennium Falcon model, which cost a cool £600!

Lost your head? then buy a new one at Legoland.

Tina's father, on the other hand, works in the factory that actually produces all of these pieces. He therefore agreed to give me a personal guided tour of the moulding factory where rows upon rows of complex machines take tiny plastic pellets from bulging buckets, squeeze and melt them at high temperatures, inject them into very precise moulds, cool them back down until they are solid and then eject them into small crates; all of this many times a minute. The factory floor is patrolled by a number of autonomous robots which then sense when crates are full, glide along to the offending crates (beeping insistently at anyone who dares get in the way of their important work) and whisk them off to be transported to the giant warehouse, full to the brim with plastic pieces. It's quite astonishing to see how few people actually work there and how automated everything is, and yet a very high level of precision is retained: Lego are notoriously meticulous about the quality of their blocks, and allegedly their sizes are accurate to within 2┬Ám.

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