How Crayola has stayed the same since you were a kid

Testlio is ridiculously passionate about testing and quality. In this series, we celebrate brands that have embraced quality as a competitive advantage and explore how they consistently exceed customer expectations.

This week we’re proud to feature a brand many of us know well: Crayola.

Making crayons is an intense process.

Then and Now

The Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood episode featuring the behind-the-scenes tour of the Crayola factory first aired in 1981. In the intervening years, the product has remained largely the same. Some colors may have come and gone, but there’s no mistaking Crayola’s iconic yellow packaging or the way its perfectly shaped crayons feel between your fingers. (If you haven’t colored with crayons recently, we recommend it.)

What made us curious was whether the 36 intervening years represented any major changes to how the crayons were made, and if so, what steps were made to ensure that the quality of each crayon was what Crayola customers had come to expect.

As it turns out, a lot of people have the same questions. A spokeswoman showed us a video of the crayon-making process as it is today, and while many steps were familiar to those of us have had repeat viewings of the Mr. Rogers segment, many other steps were different, too. Whereas the old footage began with a factory worker pouring buckets of wax over the crayon molds and scraping off the excess wax for reuse, the molds are now injected by pumping mechanisms, with unused wax removed from by a large metal blade that glides over the top of the mold. It’s not a Crayola employee who retrieves the crayons, removes any defective specimens, and takes them to the label machine, but a conveyor belt and robotic arm.

But there’s still that “ferris wheel,” and the crayons are still stacked in orderly rows into what Crayola calls “funnels”, which fall together to be swept into their final packages. And in its own way, it’s just as hypnotic to watch.

Wherefore the Robots?

Crayola’s Vice President of Global Quality, Bonnie Hall, explained these changes. “Automation ensures processes are conducted the same way every time and reduces the likelihood of human error,” she tells us over email. “Sensors are able to inspect crayons much more quickly and more objectively, and much of our new automation improves the way sticks are handled, minimizing the possibility of breakage.”

Quality checks for elements like color, crayon breaking strength, proper tip formation, label application, and more happen at multiple points in the manufacturing and packaging process. But in case you were worried that robots had completely overtaken human participation in the process, Hall assures us, “Quality checks are performed by both operators and automated instrumentation.”

The Essential Human Element

Hall tells us that for the most part, the checks are performed by online instrumentation, but human operators are always on hand to make sure the instrumentation is working correctly—and they take their responsibilities very seriously. “Our QA strategy is that all manufacturing employees are responsible for the quality of the products they produce. Our QA engineers provide training, coaching and support as well as problem-solving expertise,” she explains.

The friendly Crayola factory workers Mr. Rogers introduced us to in the ’80s are still there—their jobs have just changed a bit.

A Commitment to Quality

If your kindergartner’s teacher has specified on her supply list that the crayons you purchase must be Crayolas, it could be for good reason. Crayola prides itself on the delivery of a superior product, and they have the numbers to back it up. Hall tells us that Crayola’s standard is that less than 0.45% of its retail units will ship with a consumer-critical defect, like a broken point or incorrect color assignment.

Consumers calling 1-800-CRAYOLA or posting on social media average only 20 complaints for every million boxes of crayons sold—an impressively low 0.002%. And for those customers who do contact Crayola about defective or unsatisfactory products, Hall says, “our Consumer Affairs department resolves the issue quickly for any consumer who opens a box with a broken crayon or wrong color in the box by sending a coupon or replacing the box.”

It isn’t just that the crayons looked perfect in that footage we’ve all seen so many times. It’s that Crayola works hard to make sure that they are.