Michael Kadile has one of the coolest jobs on the planet. A lead product designer at Mattel, he’s the creative mind behind this season’s hot toy, Alpha Training Blue, the 16” robot based on the “Jurassic World” velociraptor. She roars! She prowls! She lets her “alpha” (that’s you) teach her tons of cool tricks!
Kadile didn’t start out as a big dinosaur enthusiast, as many children are. A self-proclaimed “jock” as a kid, he had no special interest in math. His interest in science was limited primarily to building model cars and airplanes from kits.
His love of building with his hands led him to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he focused on sculpting metal and jewelry. Eventually, he landed a job in the sculpting department of invention and design firm Rehkemper, where he polished parts, did a little sculpting, and slowly learned how to make things on a mill and a lathe.
When Kadile showed promise, his bosses asked him to design functional toy airplane wings. But while he knew what wanted to achieve visually, he didn’t know how design it mathematically. Fortunately, luck intervened.
Model Makers, Machinists as Mentors
“At work I met a model maker from a Russian family of aviation engineers. He took me under his wing and helped me understand what the math behind the angle of attack was. How geometry and the force of air over a certain shape would create lift.”
After a year of learning how to build better flying wings (and an entire airplane), his mentor brought him from the sculpture department into the invention and design department, where Kadile began to design and build entire toy airplanes for companies like Spinmaster – a line called Air Hogs.
“Not a lot of designers are builders, and not a lot of builders are designers,” Kadile said. But to be successful as an inventor Kadile had to be able to both design a prototype and build it by hand. Like all good inventors, he learned primarily through the critical process of trial and error, with helpful advice and feedback from his colleagues.
“It was great, because I learned from machinists and from the guys who write programming code for the CNC machines” (computer numerical control machines, which operate factory tools and machinery). “I learned more within the first three years than I did from my whole six years in college.”
“Precision became the essence of my work. And the only way to keep it precise is math.”
Designing, Building and Costing
The dual skill set of designing and building was critical for Kadile’s subsequent career at Mattel. But unlike working for Rehkemper, designing for a large corporation like Mattel means keeping the bottom line in mind, from an idea’s inception, through production, to final sales.
“I never thought I'd ever use math in the real world until I got to the design and engineering side, where I had to be precise. If you don’t do it right the first time, that’s money that the company has spent without anything to show for it. So, precision became the essence of my work. And the only way to keep it precise is math.”
So, while computers and Mattel engineers do a lot of the “heavier” physics, geometry, and algebra work of creating products, Kadile uses math all the time to:
- Create and modify production specifications using computer-aided design (CAD)
- Determine the target market based on supplied demographic statistics and historical sales trends
- Program the CNC machines
- Cut rigid pieces for the prototype on a milling machine, which uses a lot of division
- Estimate production costs, from the smallest sensor to the entire project, including labor
Costs… design... engineering… marketing… they’re all part of the process of bringing a toy to market.
Fighting the Good Fight
Toy companies are in business to make money, so even the most cutting-edge tech toy has to be grounded in the dollars they’ll generate in sales. But Kadile knew that the technology built into Blue would make or break his toy’s success.
Kadile had to justify Blue’s high $250 retail price by ensuring that the robot’s functionality and playability was a level above what existed in the marketplace. He fought hard to keep some more costly design ideas, such as incorporating a sensor so that Blue could detect her owner’s movement from across the room instead of a less expensive one that can sense only two feet away. Inevitably that forced compromises on features Kadile deemed less important.
The final Blue product includes multiple motors (to move forward, backward and sideways), an accelerometer, microphones, noise and movement sensors, LED lights, and a sophisticated a joystick motion controller with haptic feedback (vibrations that give the user information, as on many smartphones).
It’s not the first time that Kadile had to stand his ground to bring his design to fruition. When the film “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” came out in 2016, Kadile wanted to design a “full head” Batman helmet for role play. Others at the company pushed for a less expensive mask, even suggesting cutting the mask back to an “upper front quarter” that covered only the eyes.
“I looked at them,” he remembered, “and I said, ‘This is one of the most breakthrough movies of the year for any DC Comics fan. If you’ll only give them a quarter of what they really want, then I'm not doing it.’”
The company and Kadile compromised. The mask covered the entire front of the face, but not the back. It was a huge hit, and Mattel made $15 million from that one mask. That success bought him the credibility he needed to ensure that Alpha Training Blue would embody his vision.
If Blue’s positive reviews are any indication, Kadile’s instincts are still right on target.
Read more in our “Cool Careers” series: