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What students are cooking up in India’s design labs

From mobile kitchens to a light 'palki' for Vaishno Devi, student labs are using design to solve everyday problems

school education india
school education india

Design labs across the country have become a veritable playground for experimentation and innovation, with young students exploring the realms of law, ecology, conservation, history, health, music and gastronomy to come up with novel solutions to everyday problems. One lab is creating an exercise machine-cum-table-top game to motivate cancer patients to stay fit, another is growing mutant worms as part of a synthetic biology project. At yet another place, students are working on affordable arsenic filters for domestic use in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam and Manipur.

The idea is to look at India as an incubation centre of ideas for addressing the challenges faced by people on a daily basis.

A prototype of the ‘palki’ designed at the IIT, Bombay’s Industrial Design Centre.

The Palki Project

Industrial Design Centre (IDC)

At the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay

One of the country’s oldest design schools, established in 1969 by the Union government, it tries to address the real needs of real people. That’s evident in their choice of projects—for instance, a 2013 project to redesign a map of the Mumbai Suburban Railway, one of the busiest rapid transit systems in the world, to help commuters navigate better.

One of the IDC’s latest projects is the redesign and development of a lightweight palki—a litter carried by porters to ferry devotees to the Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu and Kashmir. The palkis currently in use are heavy and require constant maintenance. The initial idea was to reduce the palki’s total weight by at least 15kg, ensuring that it’s robust, comfortable and low on maintenance.

“One of our students had designed such a palki for Ajanta. When Dr R. Chidambaram, principal scientific adviser to the government of India, saw the design during his visit in 2015, he requested us to work on a similar concept for the Vaishno Devi shrine," says B.K. Chakravarthy, institute chair professor at the IDC. A customized project, it had to factor in user requirements, the culture, terrain, and convenience of porters and devotees. The different grip positions of porters were studied as they walked uphill and downhill. They studied different materials before finally settling on stainless steel (grade 304).

Karuna Jain, director, National Institute of Industrial Engineering, and her team, worked on the ergonomic study. “A total of seven prototypes were made. After each was designed, we took feedback from porters and travellers. It was a challenging assignment, but we got immense help from Dr Ketaki Bapat, who is a scientist in the office of the principal scientific adviser to the government of India, and Ajeet Kumar Sahu, the shrine board chief executive officer," says Chakravarthy.

The Compact Kitchen Project

The product design programme

At the Pearl Academy, Noida

One of the youngest entrants to the world of design education, this programme was established in 2012. Within a short period, the students have managed to impress with their mature, ecologically responsible and sustainable designs aimed at addressing specific needs in the most efficient way possible. They are encouraged to use ecologically sound materials such as special grades of steel, while the designs are affordable, easy to understand and install, and low on maintenance.

On a sunny Monday morning, several projects catch our eye at the design lab, one of these being a compact modular kitchen, a six-month project started in December by Prakhar Kumar for students and working professionals who live away from home. “Most stay in single-room accommodation without a kitchen, as rentals for kitchen-inclusive accommodation are very high. I was visiting a friend when I saw him order something as basic as tea. That was my trigger," says Kumar.

Targeting youth in the age group of 21-25, the compact kitchen makes use of materials such as quartz stone for a counter-top, pre-lam high-gloss particle board for the structure and stainless steel 304 for the kitchen sink. The cooking and preparation area is 42 inches wide and the sink, 18 inches wide. It also has castor wheels for mobility.

The prototype cost works out to around Rs18,000; Kumar pegs the mass production cost at Rs12,000. “The concept has never been explored in India but is the need of the hour," he says. Kumar will spend the next year pitching the idea to companies—he hopes it will start retailing by 2019.

The Furniture Project

Design Innovation and Craft Resource Centre (DICRC)

At CEPT University, Ahmedabad

This centre was established in 2011 to explore the vibrant tradition of Indian crafts, and students have been researching, documenting and organizing workshops related to crafts in traditional and vernacular interior architecture. At the DICRC’s Craft Innovation Studio, the spirit of “co-creation" is encouraged, with experts from the fields of craft, design, architecture, entrepreneurship, industry, marketing and governance working with students and artisans.

“One such collaborative project led to an exhibition, titled Craft Meets Technology, by Chris Martin, a Fulbright-Nehru scholar who worked with karigars (craftsmen) across Gujarat to create furniture using local craftsmanship and technology," says Jay Thakkar, associate professor and head of research at the DICRC. With the help of local artists, Martin tried to understand the folklore and sentiments attached to the patterns they used, and then interpreted those in contemporary design, even converting the traditional Indian seat, khatla, into a comfortable lounge seat by elevating the base for support.

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