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Engineering the No. 1 Monkey

They grasp fingers, fall sleep in your palm, chatter, and fart when their heads are squeezed. No wonder Fingerlings robots rocked to the top of the toy charts this holiday season!

But there’s more to the story than just savvy marketing. Without engineers, there would be no must-have monkey or its equally cute unicorn and sloth brethren. 

The tale begins back in 2015, when Sydney Wiseman approached the creative director at the high-tech toy company her family runs in Montreal, Canada, about designing a robotic monkey – specifically, the pygmy marmoset. She been watching videos about the tiny Amazonian creatures, an obsession of hers since childhood, and thought it would make an adorable addition to the WowWee animated product line. 

“Can we make this into a toy?” she asked.

“Yeah, I think we can do that,” replied Benny Dongarra, who took the challenge to his design team. As the Financial Post described the effort, they wanted the toy to be marmoset-size, cling to a finger like the little monkey, and respond to the human holding it through emotion, sound, and touch. Thus began a round of concept sketching, 3-D modeling, and building prototypes. (See WowWee’s sketch-to-manufacturing design process for its robo-cars.)

Gradually, the monkey’s face grew cuter, it’s body more cuddly.  “We were sure pretty early on that we had a winner on our hands — well, on our fingers,” Dongarra recalled.

It fell to Anthony Lemire, a mechanical engineer, and other engineers to design the sensor-studded toy’s 40 or so sounds and movements, such as singing when another Fingerling  or eye blinks.

Price was a major design constraint: Fingerlings had to cost $15 for Walmart to stock them, reports the New York Times in a video-filled December 10, 2017 Sunday business section feature about how the engineering and marketing came together to produce a holiday blockbuster… and finalist for 2018 Toy of the Year.




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