Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Rockytoys Revisited: Design Strategies for a Small Scale Industry

Image 01: A Systems Collection of Big and Small Wheeler Toys that I designed in 1974 for my father's factory in Madras.
When I got back to Madras in May 1974 after five years at NID I found that my father had reinvented his business to have a lower dependence on the wooden toy section and a greater share of his turnover (and margins) coming from the flush doors and furniture manufacturing business. I had returned to my home and our factory after having completed my PG Course in Furniture Design at NID (1969 – 1972) and having served on the Faculty there for two years (1972 -1974) during which time I had a fair amount of experience in both teaching and in professional projects through the NID’s Design Office. The wooden toy section was much depleted in number of workers and many items were being made solely for the retail shop in the city and some still popular items were being made in larger numbers for the school market as well as for supply to trade dealers across the South. I was in a pretty depressed state when I got back home since my departure from NID was not of my choice and I had hung around in Ahmedabad for a couple of months till my money had run out and I was compelled to return to Madras as a confused young man. I did hang around the factory to try and capture the earlier enthusiasm but now no one there would listen to the new fangled ideas that this young designer had and offered through which he promised he would help change the face of the industry. No one had heard about design and the message was lost in the din of the machines and the need to complete the pending orders on hand.

After a couple of months of trying I decided to try my luck elsewhere and started hanging out with a school friend who now worked as an accounts manager in a local advertising agency and spent a good deal of time in tea stalls, restaurants, cinemas and in the bus or train while commuting from home to city and back. I was however given the responsibility of reaching our shop in the evening and returning home with the sales proceeds of the day after closing the accounts and tallying all the bills, very boring indeed, but great education in business discipline. Late in the evenings and far into the night, I started sketching and building concepts of how the toy section could be revitalized at our factory. I had access to data of sales records for the past few years from the retail shop and also the costing data from the factory about each of the items that I thought could be redesigned or improved. The advertising agency however started giving me contract tasks to design logo’s, brochures and then an exhibition for some of their clients in the pharmaceutical and surgical instruments industry which helped start a fairly healthy cash flow and I worked out of my bedroom at night while continuing my lazy and serendipitous wanderings through the city by day. I read many books and visited bookstores and libraries regularly, which was the most visible activity as far as my family was concerned. My father, M V Gopalan, was indeed quite concerned at the state of his “unemployed” vagabond son – who sported a black beard and argued at the drop of a hat – since he did not know much about my activities during the day or late at night when the midnight lamp stayed lit in my room while I read or sketched, according to my mood.

Image 02: Big Wheeler Jeep Toy and Full Body Truck made up of modular components that are interchangable to facilitate inventory control in production.
We had a heart to heart talk some three months into my enforced stay at Madras and he offered to let me build some prototypes of my new sketches for toys, not because he had changed his business strategy to expand the toy activity which was then being cross subsidized by the furniture and doors business, but to get me back to what he could relate to as productive work. I had chosen to first work on the wheeled toy range since the factory had a list of almost 40 different wheeled wooden toys on offer and they were quite popular with the boys who visited our shop and the school buyers in particular always had a few on their purchase wish list. However when I looked at the production data I found that each of these had evolved at different times without any effort to coordinate the components and there were bins and bins of different size wheels stuffed into large metal drums that were used to store the components near the wood turning centre in the factory. When the turners ran out of work more wheels were made and stuffed into more drums, the right hand did not know what the left was doing. The same was true of the other components that were made on the jig-saw and the cross-cut saw centre, each managed and operated by a specialist craftsman who had to be kept busy by the factory manager. The documentation for these toys was in the form of plywood templates, sets of which were hung with a metal wire from the roof in the toy assembly section near the paint shop. These templates were dusted and brought down each time a new batch of toys were to be made and the quantities were decided by the manager, usually in divisions or multiples of dozens, depending on past performance in the market.

Image 03: Existing Big Jeep made of 25 pieces of wood, plywood and metal parts and the new design Jeep Toy in simplified construction and better finish from the factory album of 1974.
I started with the existing Jeep car, my favorite as a child, which was offered in two sizes, big and small. Each Jeep was made up from over 25 pieces of wood and plywood pieces that were cut according to the template and then assembled with glue and nails before being painted and decorated with lines and trims. The quality of construction and finish were fairly crude and the pricing was unsustainably low. However, I found that barely 10 pieces were sold in the previous year; hence it was not a significant loss. The sale price of the big Jeep toy was Rs 17.50 in 1974 and according to my calculation the cost of production was Rs. 25 at least. I decided that my design strategy would be to reduce complexity of assembly, rationalize wheels across a number of toys, use the machine cut precision to improve quality and use spray painted components to make quality improvement in finish and avoid multiple colours and lines on a single component to de-skill the finishing stage and the use of a metal bush bearing for the wheel assembly to make the product durable for rough play as the existing one had weak wheels that made the product less attractive and to avoid nails for the assembly of components. These strategies came out of my conviction from having played with these toys as well as from information about user complaints particularly from schools about the wheels, which is the key functional component in this toy.

My new Jeep toy was made of 15 pieces of solid wood planks, no plywood was used since it tended to fray in use, and the whole assembly was spray painted before assembly to get a great finish and precise joints lines. The breakthrough in the wheels assembly came from our doors business since the bearings were made of the redundant aluminum extrusion sections from tower bolts that were left over items when the flush doors were supplied with the upper stopper removed for use with holes drilled in the door frame. This was available in plenty and could be purchased by weight and therefore cost effective as well. A matching metal shaft was used and these were anchored firmly into the wooden wheels through squared ends that were forged by heating on a hot coal fire before being used for the wheel assembly. The extruded bush bearing had pre drilled holes for receiving screws top be mounted on the chassis that was a long wooden plate that extended from the front to the back of the vehicle. All wooden components were made of uniform thickness and these are cut in modular sizes affording reuse in other vehicle types in the series thereby reducing component level variety. The cost of the finished Jeep with a canopy that could be sat on by a child was Rs. 20 and we priced the toy at Rs 45 for retail. The other products in this range were the three types of Trucks – Platform, Half-body and Full-body – each priced at Rs 35, Rs. 45 and Rs. 60 respectively.

Image 04: Small Wheeler Truck System seen in the three colour schemes that I standardised for the range of toys.
The range was offered in three colour variants of Orange-Red, Yellow-Green and Blue-Green combinations all standardized to the available enamel paint range of a reputed brand so that the earlier lack of colour standards could be avoided during manufacture. All these steps ensured that the quality of the end product was sharply better and the market lapped up these products that day the first batch was taken to the shop for sale. It made a record that day. It was an amazing experience for me to be at the Rockytoys shop when my mother and I started arranging the show window and sales of the product started immediately. They literally flew off the shelf and the first batch of 12 Jeeps and 18 Trucks were sold out on day one at unheard of prices, and this represented over two years sales of the existing range. Design had made a huge difference at this small-scale industry and this market success continued for many years thereafter. Several hundred toy Jeeps and Trucks rolled out of the factory and the shop and I remember when it was launched at Bangalore, the toyshop on Brigade Road had stacked up their shop window with this range during the Christmas season in 1975. For me it was a truly wonderful sight to see my products on sale in Bangalore as well as to get positive feedback from schools such as The School in Madras who had used my products. I wonder if some of the kids who had then played with my toys will get in touch through the new connectivity provided by the web, only time will tell.

Image 05: Range of new colour schemes applied to existing toys and this was extended top all products made by the factory.
My status at the factory changed dramatically overnight and the shop floor workers and managers looked at me with a new interest but could not yet understand how this drama actually worked. Design was like some magic, and the designer, the wielder of the magic wand was much respected and consulted for all kinds of problems and many products could be changed in quick succession and several opportunities were explored in the two years that I spent at Madras before I finally returned to NID and rejoined the Faculty in June of 1976. I will share some of these experiences as well as the insights about design and its use for small industry in the days ahead. Design is a very gratifying occupation and I do wish more young people in India would enter this profession and that many more industries would use the discipline to help build quality products, particularly in the small-scale sector. My father no longer had his earlier concerns about me but he agreed with me when time came for me to return to NID as a faculty member at a fraction of the salary that I had been earning at Madras from my freelance design consultant work as well as from my contract work at the advertising agency that continued alongside my work for my father’s factory, which was by the way unpaid labour, if I do not count the food and lodging that I had from my home, and the access to the free telephone which was critical for my design business in those days.

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