Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How FabLab CEPT helped us in thinking and making astounding products

Sickle Innovations is a farming solution company with core focus on improving conventional farming practices through design intervention. Design thinking and user-centered-design approaches help us to create disruptive technologies specially engineered for the Indian farmer.

Non-conventional startups like ours face challenges very different from the mainstream IT startups. First of all, since the business is centered around robust research and development, we are often challenged by a scarcity of human capital and other resources in our immediate environment. As said by my mentor Shashank Rastogi, former-Director of CIIE (Centre for Innovation Incubation and Entrepreneurship, IIM-Ahmedabad), “The most valuable resource an entrepreneur has in their venture is his/her time.”  I too, have realized the importance of a founder’s time. I worked out the numbers, and found that most of my time was spent only in finding the right vendors to get our prototyping done and finding raw materials for our prototypes.

I still recall the day I met Henry from FabLab CEPT (CEPT University, Ahmedabad) when I came to explore the possibility of using a laser cutting machine for our prototyping work. The moment I entered in the FabLab, the mix of smells, from laser-cut wood to acrylic, and the sounds, from the whizzing of drills to the howl of the ventilation system, told me I was home. Henry introduced me to students and others from the area and showed me the machines with great enthusiasm. I could never imagine that there could be a place in Ahmedabad which was so alive, full of energy, and which hosted so many great minds.

That introduction, was the best thing to happen to Sickle Innovations in the last year. I first went there to use the laser cutting machine, but the FabLab had much more to offer. Soon, Henry offered our team to work fulltime out of the FabLab; I was speechless. Being an entrepreneur I already face many challenges; social pressure being the most prominent one. When I first started my venture, I would avoid social gathering and could only find solace in the company of fellow entrepreneurs who were hard to find in Ahmedabad. Then, I found FabLab CEPT.  There, I am constantly surrounded by a host of creative people who were all contributing to an environment of innovation.

Part of this environment that the FabLab creates is the amazing prototyping and fabrication support.  The Lab houses a myriad of tools and that expand the possibilities of what we are able to make ourselves, and is full of people who encourage us to venture into new areas of design and to question what we think is possible.  Before we started working out of the FabLab, we were making a test set-up for some motor analysis, and we had to make a hole that required very precise dimensions, I spent my whole day searching the Vatva industrial area stores and workshops for the drill bit that was nowhere to be found. This unexpected quest pushed back the timeline for our entire project.  Only a few days back, I had to drill another unusually dimensioned hole.  I looked in the tool cabinet and found a gigantic set of bits in just about every size imaginable.

Much of our work involves personal harvesting equipment and contains specialized mechanisms.  Recently, we needed to use a special mechanical belt which I was not finding in the local market.  Upon inquiring further, I found out that type of timing belts we needed are not manufactured in the country at all. I was bemoaning the fact that we would have to purchase a very costly belt from abroad with my interns when two fellow “FabLabers” over-heard our conversation and suggested that we make our own belts in the lab. After thinking about it, we realized that we had the resources to make what we needed ourselves.  Now, that was a bold step!  We prepared a mold in the micro-milling machine and successfully made the belt to our exact specifications.  This experience made us completely redefine what was possible in India and in our own hands.

Since Sickle Innovations began working out of FabLab CEPT, we have been empowered as innovators, entrepreneurs, and makers of change.  We have also been inducted into a world-wide family of “Fabbers” who unconditionally support us in our ventures and inspire us to take on even greater challenges. 

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