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Rethink! The Tinkering Lab, IIT Roorkee

October 19, 2018

The Tinkering Lab, also known as the “no curriculum lab”, was inaugurated in March 2016 with the vision to be at the forefront of technological advancements in IIT Roorkee. To know more about how the last two years have been, we spoke to Prof. Inderdeep Singh, who is the Faculty Lab coordinator, and Anant Vashistha, the Secretary of the newly formed Students’ Body of Tinkering Lab.

After coming into the college, everyone gets briefed about all sorts of labs present in the campus, but the Tinkering lab often remains a mystery. So, to start off, it would be great if you could give us some insight into the tinkering lab.

Anant: The Tinkering lab was set up in mid-2016 to serve as a platform to generate innovative ideas. The lab is equipped with several advanced technologies to foster learning and creation. Several types of machinery, tools and facilities have been introduced since then. Currently, we are working on a few new technologies. One is the use of rapid prototyping, which we believe will give birth to new ideas and products. All we want is to make the lab equipped enough for young thinkers and innovators to come, tinker and innovate.

Most students are unaware of lab timings and its facilities. Continuing on the same note, when can a student enter and perform projects in the lab?

Anant: The lab is operational from 11:00 AM to 7:00 PM during the weekdays. We realise that the timing of the lab is inconvenient for the IITR junta, so we are trying hard for an extended timing, mostly to make the lab operational during the weekends. But as of now, any student can visit and perform projects during the above-mentioned hours.

Prof. Inderdeep: To open the lab 24X7 has been our primary goal, and with the formation of the Students’ Body, this goal is almost achieved. It is quite difficult for us to put in staff members for 24 hours to manage the working of the lab, thus we needed the support of the students. We have planned to hand over the keys to a students’ volunteer team, who would make sure that the lab stays functional even during the off hours (when staff isn’t available).

What, if any, technological advancements have taken place in the lab?

Prof. Inderdeep: The core idea behind starting up such a facility was to give a complementary benefit to what the students were already learning in the classes. At IIT Roorkee, we have a highly structured way of teaching; with a fixed number of tutorials and practicals. At times there are some topics that pique the interest of the students, and one may stumble upon an idea which isn’t a part of the academic curriculum. When you are self-driven towards working on such an idea and building up a product of your own, you would need a place that would provide you with the means to do so and The Tinkering Lab is one such hub at IIT Roorkee.

Campus groups such as Team Robocon, Model and Robotics Section, IITR Motorsports, etc. are fairly active users of the lab. One can gauge the utility of the lab from the fact that when IIT Roorkee secured the second position in the Inter IIT Technical Meet, the Student Technical Council acknowledged the support that was offered by the Tinkering Lab. These are a few contributions of the lab in terms of provision of facilities to the campus groups. We may have not launched a product which can be branded as a product of IIT Roorkee, but the foundation for the same has already been laid. In the due course of time, we may be able to come up with some market-ready products with the help of the TIDES business incubator.

We also flagged off the ‘Design Innovation Centre’ recently, with the aim to turn ideas into reality, and create products which could be used by everyone. Apart from this, The Tinkering Lab was chosen as the model centre for the ‘Smart India Hackathon’ because of the facilities available here.

What role does the Tinkering Lab play in the life of UG/PG students? How has the lab supported the student community of the institute?

Prof. Inderdeep: Recently, we have observed many PG/PhD students using the facilities of the Tinkering lab to create products or perform tests and experiments besides their regular research. In other words, they are beginning to think out of the box, trying to develop a certain thought process which would enable them to build products of their own.

The Tinkering Lab is always available to the Students Technical Council. We have supported their projects, be it personal or group, by providing them with the means and tools available in the lab. The lab acts as a wall for the students to rely on, to pursue and build on their ideas.

Anant: As of now, more than 60 projects have been supported, and there are around 6 ongoing projects in the lab. These projects include personal projects, projects conducted under the guidance of a professor and Technical Section group projects.

What are the facilities accessible to the campus junta? Is there any restriction imposed on their use?

Anant: There isn’t any restriction on the use of tools and machines in the lab. If someone is interested to work on their product idea, the lab will provide all the tools that they may require to perform their project. The lab is equipped with numerous machines and hand-tools. 3D Printers, 3D Scanners, CNC Machine, VMC Machine, are some of the commonly used machines by the students. Other than that, the lab has various computational and electronic facilities, chemicals and a huge workspace.

There were grievances posted by the student’s community on the SAC IITR Discussion Forum on Facebook about the ill-working of the various types of machinery available in the lab. Why is the maintenance of these facilities poor?

Prof. Inderdeep: Up till now, there has been a non-uniform workload distribution on the machines present in the lab. We have a chemical room and a tools room, but they have merely been an exhibition throughout the year. Rapid Prototyping 3D Printing machines are used extensively by almost everyone, thereby leaving less maintenance time.

We have 18 Rapid Prototyping 3D printing machine out of which a few have turned non-functional due to its extensive use. The reason for the machines remaining non-functional is that these machines have been imported, therefore the functional parts that get damaged need to be imported as well and importing such parts take around 15-20 days. In order to tackle the problem of faulty machines, where the students may suffer, we have scheduled the ongoing projects in such a way that the students would always find one idle functional machine out of the available 18. In the Tinkering Lab, we’ve never failed to provide the facilities to anyone who has asked.

Purchasing the components of the faulty machines in the market isn’t possible, so whenever we face such a situation we make sure to order the component in a stack so that if some other machine faces the same problem, we wouldn’t have to wait for a long time to get the component replaced. The only downside of ordering components in a stack is the longer time it takes to reach us.

Apart from these, the financial model of the Tinkering Lab is not yet fully matured. If we have a complete model of money flow and appropriate resources, then we can easily plan the activities down the year. We are in a process of creating a financial model which would address to all of these issues.

A new Students’ Body has been formed for The Tinkering lab. How will this body be organised, and what are their responsibilities and functions in the lab?

Prof. Inderdeep: The organisational structure of the Tinkering lab comprises a Faculty Coordinator, an Assistant Workshop Superintendent, two Project Associates and the Students’ Body. The main aim of the body is to act as a link between the student community and the administration of the Tinkering lab. All the problems faced by the students are first addressed to the students’ body before being taken to the administration. They basically are our eyes and ears, staying active on social media to answer the queries of the students and also present in the lab to assist the students in the machine work of the labs. They give feedback to the lab administration about the usability of the equipment present along with the account of the difficulties faced by every visitor.

The Students’ Body is also responsible to disseminate the information about the labs to the students of the campus. One of the major responsibilities of the body is to know the demands of the students. There might be a group of students who need a new set of machines in the lab to further fine-tune their ideas; in such cases, the Students’ Body has to step in and let us know about the requirements of the students.

As you have stated that the student participation in the tinkering lab is pretty low; what outreach initiative has the Students’ Body taken?

Anant: Higher student participation has been our primary objective since the inception of the Students’ Body. For the same, intro talks and lab visits for all the students have been conducted and a healthy participation was witnessed as well. Moreover, we’ve also conducted a 5 Day workshop (Open to all) on 3D Printing, 3D Scanning, Laser Etching and Wood Milling. We are increasing our team strength for proper execution and organisation for the various events being conducted by the lab. To display everything available in the lab, we wish to fully digitise the Tinkering lab. The first step towards digitisation is the induction of a website, which we will launch soon. We plan to showcase the operation of every machine on our YouTube Channel. LinkedIn and Facebook promotions remain our priority. Other than that, we have planned to conduct Guest lectures, from both academicians and industry experts, organise semesterly competitions and workshops. We would also try to participate in national and international level competitions.

Running this place must be a very difficult job, and you would need to have a strong team to pull it through. What sort of challenges are you currently facing? Moreover, what changes have been made after the appointment of the new Students’ Body?

Anant: The major challenge that the students here face is the time restriction. Lack of student participation is another issue. The maintenance of machines is also a huge concern. After the appointment of the Students’ Body in November last year, we have been working on policies to improve the lab. We have started right from the scratch, scheduling events, activities, competitions, keeping our primary objective of more student participation on our minds. We have already supported more than 60 projects with very few people within the restricted time slot and with the increase in participation, we believe the tinkering lab can do wonders with the number of facilities available.

You’ve mentioned about launching your website. Could you elaborate on the functions and facilities of the website?

Anant: Launching a website will be our first step towards digitisation of the lab. It will contain information on all the machines, tools and facilities available in the lab. Few functions like Digital Inventory column to check the availability of inventory items, Student Portal where students can put up project request, submit reports, etc, Feedback form, Query management system, Idea sharing forum, have already been incorporated into the website. To promote industrial collaboration, we have planned to create a portal for industry experts and companies. All the completed and ongoing projects would be displayed on the website. Anyone who finds interest in any of the projects is welcome to collaborate through the Idea sharing forum. We believe that we will be able to launch a fully functional website before the end of this semester, fostering outreach and transparency.

What are your expectation from the Tinkering Lab and the future plans to expand the functioning and facilities inside the lab?

Prof. Inderdeep: I believe that there is huge scope in product development in India these days. In my experience, I’ve seen that students create ‘something’ during their B. Tech. years, but that ‘something’ never gets to the real market. I believe with the help of Tides Business Incubator and the Design Innovation Centre (DIC), the students would be able to take their product to the real market. Such projects would be funded by the DIC so that the students are able to make working prototypes and field test the same. Also, the link between the conceptualization of ideas and making it a market product has been missing till now, and this link needs to be bridged with the help of the Tinkering Lab, the DIC and the TIDES. My future vision is to make at least 5 different products in the next 2 years, developed in IIT Roorkee, fabricated in the lab, available to the market. I am confident that the students of IIT Roorkee are highly capable of doing so.

Are there any plans for making the lab self-sustainable? If so, what are the initiatives that you’ve planned to make this happen?

Anant: Making the lab self-sustainable is one of our objectives as well. Although we aren’t rushing with it, we would push for industrial collaboration. LinkedIn connections with industry experts and collaboration with groups like CIG will be our first step. Before that, we have several other challenges that we have to work on. A website and an active LinkedIn profile are prerequisites in making the lab self-sustainable.