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Electronic toys more than playthings

The Age

Tuesday March 15, 2011

GLENN MULCASTER

TOY store owners and buyers for the mass market and educational retailers were crowded in the VTech booth last week wearing the brightly coloured Bananas in Pyjamas lanyards and badge holders that admitted them to the 2011 Australian Toy Hobby & Nursery Fair.A marketing manager for toy distributor Modern Brands was demonstrating the Storio, an electronic reader for children, set to debut in Australia in June or July. There were only a handful of production samples at the convention centre in Melbourne."So, it's like a Kindle for kids," a shopkeeper from a South Australian toy store mused to herself. Another visitor asked if the software that helped parents upload new talking and animated books through a USB cable was similar to Apple's iTunes Store.VTech president and executive director King Pang, who runs the Hong Kong manufacturer's learning division, observed quietly but distanced himself from the pigeon holes ascribed to the new product."We don't like to directly compare our products to Amazon or all those i-products from Apple," he said. "But for some people it can be useful."VTech, which has been selling educational toys in Australia for three decades, distinguished itself by making Apple II and IBM-compatible personal computers in the 1980s.It is little wonder then that VTech which now focuses on educational toys, telephones and contract manufacturing has introduced file synchronisation for its latest electronic learning aids for Apple Macintosh and Windows computers.These include the MobiGo touchscreen games player, the Storio electronic reader, the VTech Laptop range of learning computers styled as hinged-lid notebooks with full qwerty keyboards and the KidiZoom cameras and video cameras.All synchronise with a PC over a USB cable. Parents can also monitor which games and activities the child has been using from an activity log.VTech has educational lessons not just for the almost 30 million children who received a VTech product last year, but also for manufacturers who followed its path to southern China in the past quarter century.VTech was a pioneer in moving electronics manufacturing into southern China from the mid-1980s at a time when communications and transport in the Pearl River Delta was rudimentary.It now maintains three factories in Guangzhou province, two of them near the original factory that opened near Dongguan, about 75 kilometres north of Hong Kong.VTech, which made $US206.5 million profit from revenue of $US1.53 billion last year, maintains research and development for its learning products in Hong Kong and China.Its two other units make phones for clients such as Telstra and AT&T and do custom manufacturing. Two of its factories remain in the Dongguan area.The cluster of other electronics makers and suppliers has helped VTech achieve rapid prototyping, said Mr Pang."You talk about the overall infrastructure for manufacturing in China, especially the Dongguan area, it's not just a factory, it's not just the container ports an hour way, it's the entire ecosystem," he said.At the toy fair, VTech had delivered production samples of the new products."Six or seven months before production, we start making hand-tooled samples and we typically don't do those in our factory," Mr Pang said."But if we do, say, 10 samples, we go to specialty shops to make these samples for us."And the fact that they exist within an hour's drive from our office makes it a distinct advantage."

© 2011 The Age

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