As part of our 20th anniversary celebration, our team at Design Integrity will be sharing some of the more interesting, humorous, challenging, and rewarding stories from our 20 years in business. This first post is Part 1 in a series about the development of the Ray Charles animatronic figure back in 2002. 

Music legends like Ray Charles gained international fame and notoriety due to their amazing talent and artistic genius, and they reaped the rewards of their success including enough money to buy and do just about anything that they wanted in life. As Ray and James Brown were hanging out back around 2001, though, James was bragging to Ray about something that he had that Ray did not – a singing animatronic doll that looked like James, sang one of his songs (“I Feel Good”), and danced like him (well, not so much but good enough for a toy).

From our understanding of their conversation, James was ribbing Ray quite thoroughly. Soon thereafter, Ray approached his manager, Robert Pineda of Ray Charles Enterprises, and asked him to look into getting a similar doll designed and made for him. Robert reached out to a merchandising firm in Chicago that had helped him to develop promotional products in the past. In late 2001, the merchandising firm laid out the plan for the project and searched for a firm in Chicago that could design the doll and potentially help to find a manufacturer.

Around that time, the tragic events of September 11th shook the US with a wide range of emotions from anger, fear, sadness, and the urge to seek revenge to hope, courage, the appreciation of life, and a search for meaning. During the aftermath, one of the songs that was played frequently around the country was “God Bless America”. Another was “America the Beautiful”, including Ray Charles’ amazing rendition.

The merchandising firm that was putting the plan for the doll in place felt that Ray’s song “What I’d Say” was the likely choice if only one song could be played by the doll. If the electronics allowed for two songs, “America the Beautiful” would be the second.

Through a recommendation from a business contact in the Chicago area, the merchandising firm found Beyond Design, an industrial design consultancy in the city. The firm reached out to Beyond, saw that they had experience with product design, and began initial negotiations on a contract for the development of the doll.

As the team at Beyond was primarily comprised of industrial designers at that time, Beyond reached out to Design Integrity to assist with the engineering portions of the project. The plan was for Beyond to lead the industrial design effort and for Design Integrity to handle the mechatronics (the moving mechanisms including the motors, sensors, and controls). Design Integrity had previously worked with Andrew Pines’ electrical design consulting firm in Chicago, Cosmodog, Ltd., which had a proven track record of designing the electronics for successful toys including the Furby line and Buzz Lightyear.

This is how consulting companies of all sizes work when needed. They develop strategic alliances with firms or individuals that have different competencies and/or specific areas of expertise. Some corporate customers prefer to deal with larger firms that have all of the required resources on staff. Yet, an alliance of small, talented firms can yield higher value, productivity, and speed.

A client of ours said it best when he told us, “I love working with small-to-midsize consulting firms. They’re talented or they wouldn’t be in business. A senior partner or owner is always involved instead of getting a team of junior staff members. Their overhead and cost structures are lower, and they’re generally more nimble.” Such eloquently worded testimonials have since been blended into our sales and marketing literature, as evidenced here.

So, our alliance collaborated to put forth a proposal to design and develop the Ray Charles doll from the initial conceptual design work through production launch. The first major milestone on the schedule was to design and fabricate a functional looks-like, works-like alpha prototype in time to present it to Ray at a concert in Chicago in just four and a half weeks’ time. The cost to get to the alpha prototype was estimated at roughly $125k.

To fund the prototype effort, Ray’s manager had Ray lined up to help out, if needed. In addition, the merchandising firm reached out to a member of the Walgreen family to gauge interest in getting involved in the project. The Walgreens drug store chain was the primary sales channel for the successful James Brown doll, and a Walgreen family member agreed to become an investor in the venture.

The design phase was approved, and the plan was for an alpha prototype to be shown to Ray backstage at his upcoming concert at the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago in early April of 2002. That evening, the doll would also be shown to one or more Walgreens executives who were invited backstage after the show. The following week, the prototype would be taken to Walgreens’ corporate headquarters in the near north Chicago suburbs for the formal pitch.

The merchandising firm was justifiably concerned about the tight deadline. The concert was only a month away, the product had to be designed and a one-off functioning prototype had to be built and debugged. Our point contact at the merchandising firm reached out to the core design team leaders and asked if the schedule was even possible, as we would be committing to Ray to having the prototype at the show.

The team at Design Integrity was earmarked to do a majority of the engineering design, prototype assembly, and debugging work. We knew that our strategic partners could work fast from our past experiences with them. The project schedule was laid out in detail, and our reply was something like, “There might only be a handful of firms in the world that can get this done at a high quality level in such a crazy timeline, but you somehow stumbled upon this team and we can do it.”

Seemingly impossible deadline. Unknown challenges looming ahead. Sign us up! Now, it was just a matter of getting it done. Stay tuned for Part 2.