Don Shump posted on Geekdad today about one of our family's favorite toddler toys - Geotrax, a durable, pint-sized electric train system developed by Fisher-Price - and got me rolling. Later today I'll follow his lead with a Geekdad post about some of the great Geotrax hackers I've discovered over the past several months, people who show their love for the toys by taking them apart, tricking them out, and making them their own. After you've read Don's intro to Geotrax, or if you're familiar with the toy already, you might find the following interview with mega-Geotrax fan and engineer Thomas Parker interesting. Parker designs elaborate Geotrax layouts in CAD and sells the plans on eBay.
ZRecs: These plans seem incredibly labor-intensive to develop.
Parker: Each layout takes anywhere from one to three days to design through trial and error by assembling the physical track pieces. Also during the assembly process, new track assembly techniques are experimented with and developed. Some techniques are truly innovative and others are abandoned.
ZRecs: How many have you produced? How long do they take to develop?
Parker: Five different manuals have been designed and released to the public (Vol 1 through Vol 5). Each volume contains 16 different layouts, and an appendix that shows which track pieces are included in each kit, and some assembly notes.
Vol 1 - layouts #1 - #16
Vol 2 - layouts #21 - #36
Vol 3 - layouts #41 - #56 (Elevation Series)
Vol 4 - layouts #61 - #76 (Tabletop Series)
Vol 5 - layouts #81 - #96 (Worktown Series)
Volumes 1 and 2 were developed when a limited set of kits were being offered by Fisher-Price. These two volumes use the Tracktown Railway set and a few of the Rail Track Pack kits. These layouts are two dimensional and don't use any of the Elevation Series kits or the GeoMotion Series kits. ... Since these two volumes do not take advantage of the newer kit offerings, their value has been diminished and therefore are no longer offered to the public.
Volume 3 uses the Tracktown Railway kit and all of the Elevation Series track pieces to produce three dimensional layouts. The layouts in volumes 3, 4, and 5 are split into multiple diagrams to avoid having multiple track pieces superimposed upon one another. This makes it easier to understand how to assemble the track. Volume 3 focuses on the Elevation Series kits and the layouts have a fairly large footprint.
Volume 4 uses the Workin' Town Railway kit and focuses on fully featured layouts that stay within a 4' x 8' area (a tabletop) for a "train room" or train table. Some of these layouts are smaller and will even fit on a large coffee table. Incidentally, the Thomas (or Brio) train tables are just a tad too small for any Geotrax layout... trust me, I've tried. Some of these layouts use an innovative assembly technique which allows switch track to be elevated above ground level using standard track pieces, like stanchions...no boxes or makeshift kludging. This technique was developed by yours truly. It was an inspiration that happened late one night. Also, I discovered that the Sky High Suspension Bridge could be elevated above its normal height (level 1) and use this technique in vol 4.
Vol. 5 was designed to replace Vols. 1 and 2, for people fairly new to Geotrax. It has interesting two- and three-dimensional layouts that can be built with minimal track kits. As the customer's Geotrax collection grows, they can add the optional track pieces to these layouts. The layouts show the optional track kits and where they can be placed, but they are not required to do so.
ZRecs: What's your process? Do you lay the track out physically, or just design it virtually? If both, which comes first?
Parker: Each layout begins with a basic idea. All layout must allow the direction of the train to be reversed from either direction. The layout must also be interesting, and allow a child access to the activity stations like the Mt. Blast Construction Co. or Crankin' Round Crane, etc. Multiple routes within a layout is also desirable. Many hours of trial and error pass before the form of a decent layout takes shape. After much refining, the train is placed on the track for a test run to ensure that the train doesn't get stuck traveling in one direction and that the train doesn't derail upon its descent from one or more elevation ramps.
The next step is to transcribe a rough rendition of the layout onto paper, and then draw it on the computer using CAD software. Note that a track library has been developed over the past few years, so at this point, is is just a matter of selecting the correct track piece and then placing it in the correct position and orientation. During this phase of design, a decision must be made regarding how to split the layout up into 2 or 3 diagrams so that the customer can easily understand how to assemble the track. Stanchions are placed with the proper numeral, which indicates how many stanchions are stacked upon one another. This numeral also indicates the level - level 1 is one stanchion, level 2 is two stanchions, and so on.
After a CAD drawing of the 16 layouts are complete, a layout table is constructed, which indicates which kits and how many of each is needed for each layout. Then the kit drawings are placed in the appendix. Any new kits used must have a track library element generated. The library continues to grow!
The final step is to print the first-pass manual (double sided) and present it to our quality control department. Another person assembles each layout, one at a time, and redlines any errors, inconsistencies, or confusing aspects of the diagram. This is how the errors are eliminated. Part of the process is producing an exciting layout and the other part is making sure that it is accurately conveyed to the customer.
All manuals have a revision number to keep track of any changes that have been made. Drawing technique improvements that have been discovered over time have been factored into all manuals.
ZRecs: What makes a great Geotrax layout? In other words, what are the features of a good layout?
Parker: A great layout is one that:
- allows many optional kits to be added
- ensures that the train can be reversed from both directions
- introduces the customer to new assembly techniques that they did not think of
- has multiple routes by employing switches
- ensures that the train won't derail
- has play stations where the child can gain access to play for a while
- periodically changes the speed of the train
- is easy to assemble
- uses the High Chimes Clock Tower and other fun kits (Clock Tower can be assembled 3 different ways)
- doesn't place a GeoMotion kit at the bottom of a ramp (the train will derail)
ZRecs: Have they sold well?
Parker: Originally, the plans did not sell. Perhaps they were priced too high or the potential customers were skeptical. The price was lowered and they started selling. Once a lot of positive feedback was accumulated, future potential customers could then see that previous customers were pleased. 99% of our customers have been very pleased. Manuals have been shipped all over the world, Belgium, Germany, France, Spain, Ireland, England, Australia, Mexico, Netherlands, Italy, and others.
ZRecs: Have you had any contact with Fisher-Price about what you're doing? Do you think they know how engaged their adult (parent) fans are?
Parker: Yes, I have spoken to the lead designer of the GeoTrax toy at Fisher-Price. I've also spoken to the director of the entire preschool toy line. We spoke about the possibility of a buyout and they were not interested at the time. They did indicate an interest in possibly hiring me as a consultant. They probably are aware of the interest in this toy, both from children and their parents.
This toy allows the parent and the child to feel loved. They can interact with their children, which brings joy to both the parent and the child. The parent can also allow the child to play by themselves, sometimes for an hour or two, as my son does. This allows parents to have some time to themselves. It is a very versatile toy.
ZRecs: Do you have kids? Young enough to play with Geotrax? Do you own this stuff yourself and play with it?
Parker: Yes, four, including our youngest, a six-year-old son. He was introduced to GeoTrax over three years ago. Yes, we own just about every kit offered. Yes, I do play with GeoTrax from time to time.
If you're interested in hacking kids' toys, make sure to check out toyinstructions, a user-editable wiki directory of instructions, DIY communities and user groups online at toyinstructions.net. Search is currently down on Wikispaces wikis, but feel free to browse around and post an entry for your favorite toy we don't yet list - we have several wiki members who can do the research to flesh out your entry.