A well-designed industrial product can help the operator of the equipment use it efficiently and easily, thereby increasing the productivity and cost saving for an organisation.

Tony Stanley, our next pathbreaker, Lead Industrial Designer at ErgoDesign Private Limited, provides industrial design and interaction design services for products such as air compressors and automotive service equipment.

Tony talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking up a career at the intersection of mechanical engineering and product design to ideate and implement user centric design solutions for industrial products.

For students, Industrial products are seldom considered for design intervention. But designing for complex products is probably one of the biggest challenges for a designer !

 Tony, Your background?

I was born and brought up in Coimbatore. My father was a Fire Safety Officer working at a Petrochemical company in the Middle East. My mother is a homemaker and we lived in Coimbatore with my siblings. 

During my early childhood, I was lucky to experience some good quality toys and products which my dad used to bring from the Middle East. This was a privilege in comparison to the average Indian family of those times. This was during an era before the Indian economy was liberalised or simply put, there were no Hamleys or Toys”R”us stores in India to buy fancy toys.  

I was always fascinated by the design of the scaled models of toy cars and trucks. I fondly remember the scaled model of fire trucks which my dad bought as show pieces to display at home. But I often started playing with them as toys and soon started taking them apart to understand how they were made. 

This soon evolved and I started taking apart my first bicycle to understand how it worked. Yes, I did not know how to put it back in working condition and ended up without a bicycle for some time before my parents got me another cycle, but with a warning. Although my parents were not happy with me taking things apart, they did not discourage me.            

During the same time, I got interested in comic books. I used to make my dad buy one of Archie’s comic books from the Duty Paid shop at the Coimbatore airport before he left for the Middle East, after every six months when he used to come to India for a 2 to 3-week vacation to stay with us. 

The illustrations in the comic books always fascinated me. The colours used and beautiful illustrations always transported me to a different world. Soon I started exploring my artistic side. I began sketching the different characters that I saw in these comics. I did not know that the above two interests are going to define my future!

During the beginning of my teen years, I started watching a car show on TV which used to be telecasted every Sunday. In one of the episodes, they presented cars designed by Dilip Chhabria under his brand, DC cars. I saw the sketches of the cars he had designed. This was when an idea sparked in me!  I realised that I could combine my passion of sketching comics and cars into a profession. 

In a few years, I also participated in a few competitions like the Overdrive magazine 2020 Indian car design contest and was selected as one of the notable entries. My future had started to take shape. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my BTech in Mechanical Engineering from Vellore Institute of Technology and MSc (Product Design) from University of Liverpool.

It was 2002 and I was completing my 12th grade. I was keen to join a college for car designing. I knew from the Overdrive magazine competition that the winner was from Mumbai, and he had studied at the National Institute of Design. None in my family, relatives or family friends knew of this college. As I thought it was in Mumbai, I called up my relatives in Mumbai to enquire about this college, but no one knew about it. Those were the early days of the Internet in India. We could not Google it!

Though I was disappointed, I had a plan B. I was interested in cars and so I thought I could take up Mechanical engineering and then find a way to do my further studies in design. I joined this new and upcoming Deemed University called “VIT” in Vellore, Tamil Nadu. It was a good 400+ km away from home and I stayed in the hostel. My initial days were terrible as I missed home a lot. Soon I made new friends who had come from every nook and corner of our country. 

Although I was interested in engineering, I missed design. I kept sketching cars and designing posters for college competitions. I found a great mentor in my professor, C.D. Naiju from the mechanical engineering department, who saw my passion for design. He was instrumental in guiding me towards the CEED exam (Common Entrance Exam for Design) and NID’s entrance exam. He himself was a design aspirant and had tried several times to crack these exams. But due to the limited seats, he could not get through.  

Professor Naiju’s experience was true! I too tried for these exams but could not get through due to the very limited seats. That is when I remembered some advice from Mr. Rajesh Mirajker, a notable designer who had worked on several projects with Tata motors. During his visit to VIT for a guest lecture at the SAE collegiate club (when I was the chairperson), he learnt about my passion for design and advised me to pursue design education abroad.

Initially, I was hesitant to go abroad due to the high costs, but ultimately that was the only choice left and the best decision that I took. I was keen to do my masters in transportation design at the famous Coventry University in England. Although they accepted my application, they wanted me to do a six-month diploma to improve my sketching skills. But this would increase the cost of my studies.

Hence, I started to look for other Universities and was accepted at the University of Liverpool for their Masters in Product Design and Management. Although I knew it was not transportation design, but it was design, and I was happy finally to specialise in design. 

The education at the University of Liverpool and UK in general is very practice oriented. Although we attend lectures at the University, we spend at least 50% of our time in libraries doing further reading and working in teams on small projects called as coursework. The semester exams are not the only way to earn your grade points. We need to do our best in these small projects too to achieve our grades. Sometimes in India copying projects might not be condemned, but in the UK you might even loose your opportunity to graduate if you try the same.  

Along with coursework we also get to work on live industry projects. I had an opportunity to work on 2 industry projects. In one project we worked with a medical equipment manufacturer in optimizing the design of a medical device. This project was based on one of the subjects that had been taught which was DFMA – Design for Manufacturing and Assembly. The practical application of the course on a live project helped me to get a better understanding of real-world use cases of the subjects being taught. 

Similarly, we did another project for a company developing a gaming device. This project helped us to apply the learnings from different subjects in the course. We had to research about the users of the product, understand their requirements and ideate solutions by sketching. After we decided on a solution, we had to design in the Computer Aided Design (CAD) software followed by a physical prototype. In the end all the findings and prototype were presented to the representatives of the company for their feedback. 

Finally, I completed my masters with distinction, but the day I presented my masters dissertation to my jury panel in the United Kingdom, was the day that was officially declared as recession (negative economic growth). Though I had an unconfirmed job offer, even that vanished with this recession in 2008. But my student days at Liverpool will remain as one of the best memories in my life. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

As described earlier, my father and mother were instrumental in creating an atmosphere that allowed me to explore my talents. Although my actions sometimes were beyond the acceptable norms like taking apart a bicycle and making it useless, they still saw some potential in me. They gave me the freedom to become what I wanted to become, which was not the case with the kids of my era and probably not even now, to an extent.

One of my early instincts to take things apart was influenced by none other than my father. My father had an elaborate tool set which would have been probably bigger than the toolset of an average carpenter, plumber, or an electrician of that era. He was a DIY (Do It Yourself) man. During his vacations at home in India, he would spend at least 30% of his time fixing things which had stopped working or had other issues. His solutions to the problems were unconventional and were not available off the shelf. 

During my teen years, I saw my elder brother do beautiful paintings and win prizes for the same. He also directed a few cultural programmes. He always left a unique mark in his creations which were not seen before. At the same time, I saw my elder sister take up a fashion designing course and saw her design dresses. She also paints, and the walls of her home are filled with her paintings. Growing up, seeing my siblings excel in creative work sparked my inner talent.

Dilip Chhabria helped me realise that there is a profession called design which helped me build a career with my skills. And, thanks to Overdrive magazine design contest that validated that my design skills were of some calibre, as well as the support and guidance from Professor C.D. Naiju and Rajesh Mirajker that helped me to choose the academic path to become the designer that I am today. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path 

When I went to the UK to do my post-graduation, I wanted to stay back and get some experience before returning to India. But as I mentioned earlier, things do not always go as planned. I was entering the job market in the middle of the global recession in 2008. I had to return to India after my graduation ceremony as I was not able to find a suitable job opening as most businesses froze hiring due to the negative economic outlook. 

But I was glad and happy to be back in India. After a few weeks, I started my job search, and it was turning out to be very hard. Recession had hit the Indian job market as well, at least for design. To keep myself occupied during my job search, I joined CADD Centre in Coimbatore to get a certificate in the Computer Aided Design (CAD) software like Pro-Engineer and Autodesk 3ds max.

One of my instructors at the centre informed me about a walk-in interview for engineers being conducted by PRICOL, one of India’s leading automotive components suppliers based out of Coimbatore. Since I was a mechanical engineer, I thought of giving it a try. I was still influenced by my learnings from my time in the UK. I went to the interview in full formals and a tie. I quickly started looking like the odd one out!

I stood in the long queue for the interview and was screened out in the first stage. I thought they were eliminating me due to lack of experience. But to my surprise I was taken directly for an interview with the panel of senior management. I quickly realised that the company needed a designer as the existing designer was leaving the organisation to pursue his post graduation. 

I was called for a detailed interview later, and I was able to pass all the rounds and was offered the position of Assistant Manager, Product Styling. I was responsible for leading a team of 4 designers in the design of automotive instrument clusters (speedometers) for PRICOL’s customers which included big automotive brands like Toyota, Suzuki, Harley Davidson, etc. I have come full circle. I am now designing at least some parts of a car which had been my passion since childhood. 

My first major assignment was the design of a colour touch instrument cluster for Maruti Suzuki for their hybrid SX4 car and electric Eeco car. I worked both on the industrial design of the display enclosure unit and the user interaction of the software. This was successfully completed and presented at the 2010 Auto Expo and the cars were also used to ferry delegates at the 2010 Commonwealth games, New Delhi. 

My next three and half years were involved in designing instrument clusters for different automotive brands. Sometimes as a designer we get bored of the routine and would like to challenge ourselves and explore more. I started looking for new opportunities. I quickly realized that I might have to relocate to Bangalore to find new and exciting opportunities.

I gave a couple of interviews but was not successful. During my PRICOL days I had interviewed a junior designer, and she was working for a company in Bangalore, and she had posted the requirement for a designer on Design in India Yahoo groups. I emailed my resume and portfolio of my design work to her. I was called for an interview and was appointed as the Senior Industrial Designer at ErgoDesign Private Limited.

This new company was the subsidiary of Elgi Equipments Limited, Coimbatore. It is an industrial air compressor manufacturer. I was responsible for the industrial design of air compressors and related products. Elgi has a subsidiary called ATS ELGI which makes automotive service equipment, and I was responsible for the design of these products too. 

I was promoted quickly to Lead Industrial designer and am currently leading a team of designers and engineers. We work on the industrial design, interaction design and graphic design of all the products under the ELGI and ATS ELGI brands. Each product or project here is unique and this has helped me keep my creative juice flowing and not getting bored.

Can you explain how designing industrial products is different from designing end user products?

Typically, we hear car, watches, dresses, phones etc. being designed by designers. But we do not normally hear of an industrial product being designed by designers. That is partly true since not all industries have understood the business value of design and hence, have not designed their products with the help of designers. Most of these products are likely to have bad user experience. 

In industrial products, we typically consider the perspective of 3 types of users. Primary user is the actual buyer of the product or the operator of the machine, this user is mainly concerned with the continuous running of the machine to ensure business continuity without any unnecessary stoppage. We also need to ensure ease of operation of the machine with minimum intervention from the user.

The secondary and tertiary users are internal users, namely the product assembler and the service technician. Remember DFMA (Design for Manufacturing and Assembly) from the previous section, we need to ensure that the design considers ease of manufacturing and assembly. Since these are industrial products, they also need to be serviced regularly due to their regular use. Hence, we need to consider for the ease of disassembly during the service of these machines.

Currently products are undergoing digital transformation. And we are working on Industrial Internet of Things or simply put, we are connecting all our compressors via the internet to monitor them. This enables us to give valuable information to our customers like any critical issue before the machine fails, service reminders and tips to use the machine efficiently.

We are also evolving the physical interfaces like the buttons and gauges to more efficient and user-friendly touch enabled display screens. User interaction design is the design discipline concerning the design of these display interfaces. Most of the times these displays are enclosed inside a plastic enclosure to provide for protection from dust and water. To quickly check on these designs, we make use of 3D printing technology to print the plastic parts and try on the product. 

From the above scenarios it is evident that the design is important in order to add differentiating value to a product, and any business which values design is bound to be successful with their product offerings in the market. 

In 2019, we won the CII design award for the Industrial design of the ELGi AB series of compressors. This was one of our major design projects in which we helped design a new revolutionary air compressor from the ground up. Although we had several constraints, we were able to design an aesthetically and user-friendly product which got acknowledged with the design award. 

Since the COVID 19 lockdown we have been working from home, together as a team and have successfully completed several exciting new projects which will advance the offerings of ELGI and ATS ELGI. Before COVID we barely thought of being able to work from home as a creative team. But life teaches us that we need to keep trying to learn something new. 

How did you get your first break? 

As mentioned earlier, my first break came through one of the instructors at the CADD centre. And even my second break came through a candidate I had interviewed during my first job. Networking is key if you want to grow in your career. Sometimes jobs are filled through internal referrals even before they are published in the public domain. 

Networking is a skill which you will have to learn if you need to be successful. This may seem daunting at first. But I shall recommend a book “The 2-hour Job search” by Steve Dalton. This book will help you learn how to do job search in this era of social media.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1:

During my school years, although I had interest in design, I was unable to find the right place to pursue my dream. Since I had a plan B to do mechanical engineering it eventually helped me pursue my career in design. I ensured that my plan B was loosely associated with my area of interest which was design.

Challenge 2:

Even the best plans can fail at times. I did not imagine a recession coming when I had planned to do my masters in the UK. I did not know what recession was until it happened. But there was always a plan B. I eventually returned to India to find a job though it was not easy as usual. I found out about the interview for engineers from my instructor at CADD centre and ended up being recruited as a designer. 

Challenge 3:

Even after 3 and half years of experience, I did not find my next break easily. Although I was interviewed for a few jobs based on the online job listings, my second break was through an internal reference at my current company. It is important that we network with people to increase our chances of getting a job opportunity. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve as an Industrial Designer?

I am currently the Lead Industrial Designer for ErgoDesign Private Limited, Bangalore which is the subsidiary of the Elgi Equipments Limited, Coimbatore. I currently lead a team of designers from different design disciplines and engineers providing design services to ELGI and ATS ELGI.

We work on the industrial design, interaction design and graphic design domains for the products being developed by ELGI and ATS ELGI. Design is problem solving. In design, we place the user at the centre of the design process, we strive to find the best possible solutions with maximum consideration to the user needs. 

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?

The skills common across the design disciplines are problem solving, ideation through sketches and prototyping using basic materials. Lately, some may consider themselves a designer just by knowing a design software or two. But please remember that these are just tools to improve our productivity. You can also do a poor or bad design using these software tools. The ability of a good designer is to solve the problem with a user centric solution. 

What’s a typical day like?

My typical day starts with my notes on the current projects and updating my project planner to plan new projects or tasks. Following which I meet up with my designers who are working on different projects to understand the progress and help them if there are any issues. I also handle some projects individually, so I resume my work on these after completing the daily review of the projects. 

In addition to the above, I might have telephone calls with our engineers and managers at ELGI and ATS ELGI to discuss ongoing projects or new projects. I might also have to travel to Coimbatore to see the prototype of a new product or visit our customers to garner the user feedback of our existing products or prototypes which are under testing. 

Industrial products are sometimes the least considered for design intervention. But a very well-designed industrial product can help an operator of the equipment use it efficiently and easily, thereby increasing the productivity and cost saving for an organisation. 

Consider this example which we did for ATS ELGI. Indian market is flooded with wheel alignment equipment from foreign manufacturers designed based on considerations for users from developed countries. But in India the tyre shops usually have a pit in the garage to do the underside work on the cars.

During our user research we identified that the users were finding it difficult to view the display screen when they were inside the pits. This was because the imported products were designed for users who will be using a lift to raise the vehicle off the ground to do the repairs. This insight helped us to ideate a better solution considering the Indian tyre shop conditions.

We developed a design solution in which the display screen can be lowered to the ground level when the mechanic is in the pit and thereby helping him to see the details required by him for the repair. The display can also be raised back to the normal position when he is back on the ground level. This design was very successful that our competition also started copying our solution!

Over the years, we have been able to improve the products launched by ELGI and ATS ELGI brands. ELGI has now grown substantially in the developed markets like USA and Europe and the designs have been well appreciated.

How does your work benefit society? 

Everyone is a designer. We design our life with the decisions we take. We even design our own resume. But most of our design decisions are not conscious or original. We may copy the designs which are already existing and successful. 

We encounter designs daily, be it the pen you are using to write; the pavement you are walking on; the screen on an ATM machine or the long queue at a food counter. Each is a result of a design decision. But if the experience is bad, it was most likely designed without the help of a designer. 

When you are a designer the design decisions are conscious and well thought out. Designing involves human psychology and by putting the user at the forefront of the design process. “Design is intelligence made visible” – Lou Danziger, American graphic designer, and design educator. In short, a good design will help a society be inclusive and productive.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Design is a relatively new profession in India, and all are not aware of the change designers could bring about. In any project, the design goes through multiple stages, but it is only visible to all only in the execution stage. 

In 2017 when ELGI underwent a rebranding, we were responsible for rebranding the products with a new colour scheme and branding. Until then, most of our projects were limited in exposure as it may have been part of a small aspect of a product and all employees might not have been aware of the design intervention provided by us.

The ELGI rebranding was very visual as these products underwent a total visual change in terms of the colour scheme and the branding. Although the product had not changed much, the visual change brought out a huge visual appeal to our product. This was our first break where we garnered organisation wide appreciation for the aesthetic improvement to the products with our design intervention. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Try exploring what your interests are and what you are passionate about in this world. There must be something in this world which surely will be of interest to you. Once you have identified that, try to find out if there is any profession based on the same. Even if it does not exist, you may be able to create one. The careers you will find in the next 25 years are not even created yet. 

Be curious always and try to learn new things in the early stages of life. As we become older, we will have a lot of other responsibilities and might not have all the time in the world to learn new things, but you should try to continue learning new things. As technology changes rapidly, learn new skills to be future proof. 

Things do not always go as per our plan. Please always have a plan B so that you do not feel bad if plan A does not work. Never let others give you a plan B as it might not be of your interest or liking. Please listen to the opinions of others as someone’s advice may be valuable, but decide your life on your terms. 

Future Plans?

We are in an age where technology grows in leaps and bounds within a decade. Every user aspires to use the best of new technology. To stay relevant in the profession we need to upskill with the latest knowledge and skills. 

I am currently pursuing a course to upskill myself for future technologies and keeping myself relevant. Hopefully I will be able to grow in my career to solve even more challenging problems for the users and thereby making the world we live in a tiny bit better!