80 years ago today, a guy named Ole Kirk started to make wooden toys in a little shop in Billund, Denmark. Some of those toys are still guarded in a secret underground vault, right below the place where Ole started his now legendary company: Lego.
The vault is called the Memory Lane, and it also contains every Lego set ever manufactured. These videos are an exclusive look inside that magic place, along with the factory where hundreds of thousands of bricks get produced and stored every day.
I snuck into that secret vault thanks to Jette Orduna, the curator of the Idea House, Lego's museum. It was an experience that touched me in a way I didn't expect. This wasn't amazement or simple awe. I was already astonished to no end by the tour of the Lego factory. No, this was something else, something bigger than the impressive view of the 4,720 Lego sets inside this lair. These weren't just simple boxes full of bricks. These were tickets to ride a time portal to emotions and simpler days long forgotten.
I didn't know that when I was curiously ogling the oldest sets, from the 1950s. Jette was explaining the first Lego sets, obviously enjoying my enthusiasm. "Here's the wooden box that some shops around Denmark had, usually hairdressers or general stores" she would say while carefully opening it for me to see its contents, simple red and white bricks without tubes, some of them with windows on them, "they contained individual Lego bricks. Back then, parents bought them regularly to their children, so they could keep expanding their Lego system." Then she would turn her attention to another set, as I kept asking what was this or that. "Yes, it's called 'electronic' because this train could be activated by whistling," she would explain, whistling herself.
I was just enjoying it like an archeologist. Her explanations, the cool box designs, the quick evolution of the first years... I was amazed by the ingenuity of it all, curious about the origins of the myth. But that was it. Just simple curiosity. Until we got to the 1970s.
Knowing my previous comments, Jette went straight to one of the shelves, at the end of the long aisle. She looked up and down, her lips pressed together, concentrated in finding something. While she was doing this I was filming around, eyes wide open, thinking "oh, is that?" and "nah, that can't be... can it?" my excitement growing by the second. It was then when she took out a large rectangular box with yellow sides, saying "a-ha! Here it is."
I turned around and I saw what she had in her hands: the Lego Space Galaxy Explorer.
And then it hit me. Lift off. Godspeed. Boom.
A wave of emotions took control, hitting my head like a Lego Airbus 380. Dozens of images started to appear in my head, Polaroids of Xmas and birthdays that I thought were faded, completely fresh, color-corrected, and restored by the damn Lucasfilm for a Blu-ray re-release. I could even see the Hollywood quote whores saying "Better than ever!", "The past never looked so good!", and "Five stars!" embossed in silver on the special edition boxed set. There was my mother and father-who built a huge Lego ferris wheel and the Blue Train for us when we were too young to build it, then never stop giving us new sets every year-and then my two brothers and my sister, playing on the rug, building all kind of new and wonderful constructions populated by the strangest creatures. And that smell. The perfect smell of Lego bricks.
You know what I'm talking about, those were the days and all that jazz. But for real. Feelings and moments from times when everything was innocent and your only concern was your bike, a big carpet full of Lego bricks, and the amount of cocoa in your cereals.
After that, it was one wave after the other, jumping from Lego Space to Lego Technic to Lego Town to Lego Castle and Lego Pirates and Lego Star Wars. Each set a memory, a particular Kodak moment blurred by the occasional teary eye.
Soon, too soon, it was over. And as I was walking up the stairs, back to the present, slowly letting the past fade back into the treasure chest, I thought: "This must be it. This must be reason why Lego is so loved by almost everyone in the planet." Sure they are fun. The details, the incredible designs, the way you physically touch them, how they make you use both your hands, creativity, and logic. All that is there, all are parts of their universal appeal.
But there's a lot more. Something more fundamental, bigger than the sum of all those qualities. Underneath all that there's a primal connection, something that makes everyone tune into the childhoods when they see the bricks, and get back into brighter, careless moments, even at the subconscious levels.
And thinking that, I joined Jette and Jan in the Real World, with a grin on my face. Life wasn't that bad, after all. Not if something as simple as a colored brick can make me smile again.
Into the magic factory!
This video shows something that very few people have had the opportunity to witness: the inside of the Lego factory, with no barriers or secrets. I filmed every step in the creation of the brick. From the raw granulate stored in massive silos to the moulding machines to the gigantic storage cathedrals to the decoration and packaging warehouses, you will be able to see absolutely everything, including the most guarded secret of the company: the brick molds themselves.
While the storage areas are the most impressive part of the factory, I have to admit that nothing had prepared me for the scope and complexity that is required to make and pack 19 billion bricks every year. The scale of this factory, specially compared to the tiny bricks it produces, is absolutely breathtaking.
The warehouse and the mold room
We started in the main warehouse, which is half a kilometer long. Here they house the silos holding the raw plastic granulate. Through them, 60 tons of this material is processed every 24 hours. These towers are connected to the moulding machines through a labyrinth of tubes that push the granulate mixtures in a permanent tin-pitched rumble.
It's the digestive system of the enormous factory, always feeding the moulding lines through the tubes and moving big boxes full of pieces-using conveyor belts-into the storage area in an endless and precise dance which never ends: this factory works around the clock to fulfill the worldwide thirst for Lego.
The moulding machines
Everything is recycled in the factory. The plastic granulate itself is a by-product from diesel, and whatever is discarded in the manufacturing process gets recycled. The leftover parts from the mold-the plastic that fills the channels that take the hot plastic into the piece negative-fall down the machine, gets ground up, and put back into the production cycle. Any other waste, like faulty pieces or the transparent plastic used to clean the inner tubes when they need to change the production color of a moulding machine, are also ground up and sold to other companies for the production of other things, like pipes and even heating oil.
The machines produce more than two million pieces per hour, churning incessantly into color- and bar-coded boxes. I looked around and I couldn't see many people. A woman was in one of those endless aisles looking at a few moulding machines with big "QT" signs on them. She was in charge of quality testing, making sure that the production was going perfectly.
At one point I was taking photos of a box of full of yellow bricks, and suddenly the machine stopped working. Fearing I had done something wrong, I saw a big wonky box coming from the distance, some kind of weird transport with strange sensors on the top, straight from a moisture farm on Tatooine or a spice mine in Dune. I stepped back, instantly realizing it was one of the many factory robots.
This transport bot was answering the call of the central mainframes, the brains of the Lego body that control every aspect of the process at all times. The mainframes had stopped the production of the machine, following the signal of the sensor next to the box and sending the signal to the robot, alerting it that it had to harvest the crop of bricks. The robots travel down the aisles autonomously, picking up boxes and leaving empty ones so production can be resumed.
The storage cathedrals, decoration and packaging
The robots then put the boxes in the conveyors, which move them into the storage cathedrals (click here to see a complete report on them, the following video only has a brief summary). There, the huge cranebots lift them to the heavens, placing them in endless towers of boxes. There are four of these cathedrals in the Lego factory, and no humans are inside. The mainframes know what it is inside at all times, and order the cranebots to retrieve boxes and send them to decoration and packaging, where Lego sets take their final form.
Here, the Lego pieces may take two ways. One is to go straight to the packaging lines. The other is to go into decoration. Decoration is the most expensive part of the Lego process. Here, the pieces are individually painted with absolute precision, like you can see in detail in this video.
In the packaging lines the pieces are distributed: they are dumped into the machine, which separates them one by one, then counts them using optical sensors, and placed in a generic small box. I watched in amazement, seeing how the pieces fell into these small boxes on a very small conveyor. At every step, one, two, three or whatever amount of pieces will fall into the box, according to the instructions of the set in production.
Along the way, high precision scales measure the weight of the box. The computers know exactly how much a box has to weigh at any stage, indicating that the correct number and kind of pieces are inside. If there's a variation of a few micro-grams, the alarm jumps and an operator grabs the box, sorts the pieces, and puts the box back into production.
Once the box is complete, the contents are dropped into the plastic wrapping machine, which makes a bag with the pieces inside. The box are then dropped inside another box, and passed into another production line, where more bags would be added until all the set pieces are in place, ready to be packaged and sent to shops all around the world.
As I watched the boxes going away, being wrapped for shipping, I couldn't help to have this feeling of absolute marvel. From plastic grains to full sets, everything controlled by computers and robots, in a scale that-given the size of most of these piece-stunned me. Next time you look at that Lego box full of bricks, or your collection of mini-figs, think about how complex and elegant the whole production process is. Your "toy" will have then a completely new dimension.
I couldn't think of a better song to go with the secret vault story than the Johnny Cash version of Memories Are Made of This, from the album Unchained. Sadness and happiness at the same time, bringing so many other memories on its own. You can buy it at Amazon or the iTunes Music Store. In fact, get the whole album while you are it, because it's amazing (and so are the rest of the American Recordings series).