American product designer Coby Unger came to Mumbai, dismantled an auto rickshaw, and created a mobile workshop platform that’s set to hit the streets
The Maker’s Asylum in Andheri is a bit like Tony Stark’s lab, or Bruce Wayne’s basement - the sort of space filled with interesting gadgets. It’s a 6,000sqft workshop space where designers, engineers, and carpenters collaborate to build innovative products.
We are here to meet Coby Unger (26), an American collaborator at the Asylum. Unger reminds you of a grown-up Harry Potter: lanky, messy hair (only blonde, not black), glasses. Instead of the forehead scar, he has multiple cuts on his palms.
He is a wizard too. Not wand-wielding, but welding machine-wielding. His latest creation is the Maker Auto. The refurbished auto is a mobile workshop space equipped with working tables, hand tools (hammers, saws, and measuring tape), even a 3D printer.
“We want to make manufacturing and designing more accessible to maker communities in the city. With the Auto, we are not confined to a limited space, and eliminate membership charges,” says Unger.
The Auto was unveiled on August 24, and is expected to hit the streets this month. They even have their first workshop venue: Dharavi , in collaboration with an NGO called Dharavi Diary, on design thinking, and push-cart building for the children living in the community.
Why the auto rickshaw? “The vehicle is quintessentially Indian, and embodies Mumbai’s culture,” says Unger. Was it easy to find one in working condition? “We simply brought one off OLX. The real challenges came after,” says Unger.
For Unger and his team members - product designers and collaborators at the Asylum, Mayur Ahuaj (20) and Nikhil Shinde (21) - their first challenge was the inexperience in dealing with an automobile. They also had to work on the Auto’s limited body space to incorporate folding tables, printers, and drawers to carry tools.
The final Auto houses four folding tables, with attached drawers. The tables fit inside what was originally the passenger seat. The boot is equipped with a 3D printer, and electrical support. The rickshaw seats up to two people in the front to drive around town. What’s most interesting are the Auto’s wing-like doors, that swing open like that of a convertible car, unveiling the folding tables.
Unger always grew up around tools, back home in Rhode Island, USA. His father is a carpenter, and his mother, a science teacher. “I am a combination of their talent and expertise,” he says. He went on to study product and industrial design at Philadelphia University. In college, he realised his calling lay in physically building products instead of designing them for mass production.
After graduation, Unger worked as an artist in residence at Autodesk Pier 9, San Francisco, a community of designers, and product innovators, equipped with machinery. As part of his residency here, Unger worked at Instructables, a creation firm incubated at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
How did he end up in India? The urge to travel brought Unger to Pondicherry in early 2015. “India has a history of innovative technology. Even today, there still exist hundred thousands of professions that involve people making things with their hands. The skill set is unparalleled,” he says.
Yet, travel wasn’t the only attraction. Unger met Vaibhav Chhabra, co-founder, Maker’s Asylum, at a conference in Bengaluru earlier this year. Chhabra invited Unger to be a part of the maker in residence programme - a four-month programme that encourages young makers to create innovative products. And that is how the idea of Auto began to take shape.
Long road ahead
Keeping the accessibility of a maker space in mind, the Auto’s purpose is quite flexible. It can be used by multiple designers, for a series of workshops. “You can stock the auto with workshop-specific tools, as required. Nothing is fixed. This means that everyone from school children, to freelance designers are open to use the facility,” says Unger
Despite the Auto’s possible contribution to the maker’s movement in India, to get it running on the streets has been the team’s biggest challenge. With multiple RTO permissions required for the commercial use of an auto rickshaw, and a three-wheeler driving license, a major hurdle still lies before them. Yet, Unger is optimistic. “We’ve filed all the paperwork and it shouldn’t be long now before the licenses come through,” he says
But beyond the community-building initiative, Unger primarily hopes to dignify the art of creation through the Auto – to “make making cool again”. “Indians don’t want to get their hands dirty. They are content with their desk jobs, and often look down upon builders. If I am able to generate respect for creation and making again through the Auto, the project will be a success,” he says.
Track the Auto: Follow the Auto on Facebook to get updates on the Auto’s upcoming workshops and collaborations.