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ADITYA DEV SOOD
TURTLE NECK

Aditya Dev Sood runs the innovation consulting firm Center for Knowledge Societies (www.cks.in). He can be reached at adityadevsood@gmail.

The perfect Indian domestic appliance, copycatted to death

Summets mixer grinder suited the needs of Indian kitchens

he story of the Sumeet Mixer-Grinder must enjoy a unique place in any future history of innovation in India. The product was born not through consumer surveys, or strategic business evaluations, but rather through a domestic conversation, between Satya Prakash, an engineer working with Seimens, and his wife Madhuri. At some point in the early '60s, her kitchen blender had burnt out again, and while he was repairing it he realised that it was severely underpowered, and would likely burn out again. The kinds of work that Madhuri was putting her Braun appliance to was not actually what it was designed for. And so the two began putting up collateral for the initial loans that they needed to begin making their own appliance, specifically engineered for the kitchens of India.

It is striking to me, when I hear this story, that no designers were involved in the process. Satya Prakash provided the engineering ability and Madhuri provided the user's perspective, continuously testing and providing feedback to the technicians working on early prototypes. The earliest versions of the Sumeet look somehow basic, with each individual form expressing its own functionality, the whole never coming together in a kind of visual-aesthetic package. Middle-class Indian families in the '70s and '80s weren't buying Sumeets for their aesthetic appeal, but rather for their diverse functionalities and engineering resilience: whether you were grinding wet or dry masalas, making dough, or doing anything else aggressive with your food, the Sumeet would power on, cheerfully applying itself to your food ingredients.

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Middle-class Indian families in the ‘70s and ‘80s weren’t buying Sumeets for their aesthetic appeal, but rather for their diverse functionalities and engineering resilience

The base of the machine had sharp corners, with only a slight tilt to the console with its different buttons, signalling different degrees of rotor intensity. The jars of the Sumeet were not clear glass or plastic, as with many milkshake and malt-making machines, but rather made of stainless steel, a material then ubiquitous in Indian kitchens. The material spoke of ease of cleaning, resilience to wear and tear, effectively making the most fragile part of a blending machine nearly indestructible. Another important innovation of the Sumeet, again based on user studies, was a dough-maker, which consisted of a stationary arm that allowed the dough to knead around it, somewhat like the two arms of a human body.

he success of the Sumeet spawned many competitors in different regions of India, including for example the Meenumix, the Preethi, and Gopi, though none of them achieved the kind of brand recognition of the Sumeet, practically to the point of defining the appliance category. But just as the Sumeet was becoming a case study at schools of business worldwide, it all came apart. The liberalisation of the Indian economy allowed players like Philips to enter in a new way, and they eventually recognized that they would have to stop upgrading their own products to try to compete with the Sumeet, and rather needed to reverse-engineer the Sumeet. The prosaically named HR1651 from Philips does everything a Sumeet can, but it does it more ergonomically, and with some light visual-aesthetic flourishes, of the kind that buyers in a consumer-goods store naturally gravitate towards.

Today, Sumeets are no longer readily available in the market, and the family business behind them appears to be in distress, on account of this competition, and on account, perhaps of their inability to broaden their appliance line and adapt to the changed dynamics of a liberalised retail market. What remains of the Sumeet legacy, therefore, is a terrific series of appliance innovations, and a brand with lingering, longing, nostalgic appeal.

 
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