Friday, February 29, 2008

Rockytoys as a Model: The Mini Wheeler Series

Rockytoys Experience: The Mini Wheeler Series and beyond
Image: Mini Wheeler series designed for Rockytoys in 1975 using spindle moulder profiles for mass production.
The Dinky Toy™ range and the Matchbox™ range were an all time favorite at our shop ever since I first saw the little cars in the late 50’s during our frequent visits to our shop, Rockytoys on General Patters Road. Die cast in zinc with a great attention to detail, each car was a fine replica of the one that the toy represented. Kids and their parents seemed to love these and those who could afford them had large collections and they were used for imaginative play. As little children, my brother and I had a large collection of these Dinky Toy cars, thanks to our fathers liberal position about our access to these toys when we visited the shop, and this extended as well to the Meccano™ construction kits that brought us hours of fun and productive labour in building and dismantling wonderful structures at our home in Guindy in Madras. My father was an avid collector of old toy prototypes and on one of his visits to Calcutta he came back with an enormous set of Hornby™ Model Railway engines, wagons and a huge supply of 0 gauge tracks. It was enormous and we could set up tracks all over our long bedroom at our old house at Guindy and it has stations, level crossing and changing tracks, all made in tinplate construction that was precise and robust in construction. Two clock-work engines and two complete sets of passenger and goods wagons came with the set. He has also obtained a number of catalogues of toy company Tri-ang™, and we spent several hours each day pouring over these books while playing with what we had at hand.

This experience must have been in the back of my mind when I decided to develop a range of little cars for production in our factory using wood as the primary material. I remembered having seen an old book in my fathers collection that showed the creation of the Noah’s Ark and all the animals using a cart-wheel type construction that was then turned on a lathe in the profile of each animal and the animal shape was revealed when the “cart-wheel” was eventually sliced radialy into narrow slices such that the cross section was the shape of the animal concerned. These slices were then whittled and shaped to make a range of realistic animal shapes which could then be included in the Noah’s Ark toy. Each lathe turned “cart-wheel” would produce a large number of identical animals, very clever indeed.

Image: Detail of the BUG, DIX and other three-letter named car toys made using moulded wood profiles in stained wood finish.
Inspired by this process I developed a range of spindle-moulded car shapes using a small number of cutter blades since there was little investment funds available to make these cutters. I mixed an d matched the cutters for the front and back of the cars and thereby produced a range that I called the Mini-Wheeler series”, all an extension of the same design strategy that had started with the making of the Big Wheeler and Small Wheeler range, that of using one size of wheel and wheel assembly to produce a range of new offerings. I used a uniform size of drill holes to suggest windows and the form was an extreme simplification but the message was clear. Each car and train set were made using a limited number of cutters and the intention was to offer these in graphic packaging that had large typography and the profile of the car on the outside of the box which was to be printed using the screen printing technique since once again small scale production would be used to establish the product and if they turned successful theses could be scaled up using other manufacturing techniques. These toys never reached large scale production that I had intended but several hundred sets were produced and sold in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The wheels were turned using rosewood stock that had come from a bulk purchase of root segments from a forest auction that my father had participated in during the 60’s and these were ideal for making the wheels since the material was rock hard and the small components were not too difficult to manage from this stock. The body was made using white cedar and another wood called “Manja Kadamba”, which was a local hardwood that was fine grained and white in colour. I used dye colours to shade the finished blocks and no painted version was offered for this range since the stained and natural versions were found acceptable in the market.

Image: Mini-Wheeler Train set and the range of cars using the spindle moulding process.
Much later when I had returned to NID I developed another toy which was prototyped but never produced which I called the “Acrobats” which was based on the spindle moulded dolls, boy and girl shapes that could be stacked in a variety of ways, being modular in dimension, and these would form a human pyramid when stacked by the child like in the “Janmashtami” function of “Matka Phod” that is very popular in Bombay and all over Maharashtra State. However, design is an investment, and it can be encashed at anytime if the conditions for that particular offering are dusted out from the shelf and offered to the market in an acceptable form and price. These toys can have a life of their own once again and I do hope that some young enthusiast will revive some of these as modern versions and reach these to children who need them for play and learning. Crafts communities in India and elsewhere could use these design offerings and the process of innovation that these represent to kick-start entrepreneurship in their own locations and offer some of these toys to the local markets in a sustainable manner. This form of innovation can be a great driver of the economy but it is still not understood in India for what it truly is. One year after the launch of the National Design Policy in India last February, the Finance Minister today in his 2008 Budget speech made no mention of any special allocation for Design Promotion like Korea has done or Design Support like the Wales model both much needed in India today, just as in the last year the only mention about design was at the tail end of his speech when the service tax on design services was announced for the first time in Parliament. I wonder when design, as we understand it today, will be recognized in India for what it can really do in the core areas of our economy and society and not just for the superficial qualities that are those dealing with the aesthetic quality of products, which is perhaps well understood, but unfortunately these are equated to luxury products and services and not for the core applications across 230 sectors of our economy as I have been arguing here on this blog.

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