K'nex is making the $4m (pounds 2.6m) investment in Ashford, close to a new Channel Tunnel line station. Initially, it will be a packing centre for products made in the US, employing 100 people, but a further $5m investment will convert it into a full manufacturing plant with 180 employees within two years. China, with its low wages, makes the vast majority of the world's toys. Peter Brown, president of K'nex International, says this rare European investment by a toymaker makes sense partly because of Kent's advantages as a distribution point, but mainly because the factory will be so automated that labour costs are not crucial.
"We need highly skilled people to run very complicated computerised equipment," Mr Brown said. "I'm rather proud that we're bringing the industry back to Britain." K'nex is a cross between Lego and Meccano: the colour-coded pieces slot together like Lego but can be used to build mechanical-type toys. It was launched by a plastic components manufacturer, Joel Glickman, in 1992 and has been made in Pennsylvania since.
K'nex International was formed as a joint venture with US giant Hasbro last year, and the toy was launched in the UK in October 1994. It has taken a 12 per cent share of the construction toy market and won the Toy of the Year product for Parents Magazine in July.
Meccano, now built in France, has also been doing well, taking 8 per cent of the UK market. Mr Brown says the two products have helped to expand the traditional construction market, which is still dominated by Lego from Denmark. "There is a return to traditional toy values, away from video games," he says. "Parents like construction games, because they can see what their kids have done."
"We will have shipped $25m worth of product to Europe this year," he says. "Next year we will be going into another 12 European markets and our sales should be doubled."