Andrew Sinclair, Project Manager for Medicine Mondiale talks about Manufacturing the LifePod in India


August 2016

Chennai, formally known as Madras, is located in Southern India and is the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. In August of 2016, as work begins producing the Lifepod, the weather is sweltering and the humidity is intense. I’m here to help with the development of the Mondiale Lifepod which will provide newborns with a safe, sterile environment maintained at an ambient temperature of around 37°C and about eighty percent humidity.

Chennai is home to Phoenix Medical Systems, who are our manufacturing partner. Phoenix started manufacturing their own incubator in 1989 and have gone on to win a shelf full of awards for their highly regarded range of healthcare products. Phoenix’s purpose built factory is located in Thirumudivakkam, which when written looks like somebody has dropped something on the keyboard, but I’m assured by Phoenix MD Sashi Kumar, is a real place. Aside from having too many consonants, Thirumudivakkam also features an outstandingly beautiful Temple dating from around the 11th Century.

Arriving at the factory, the security guard looks like he may be of a similar vintage as the nearby temple, but he shuffles out of the way to make room for us as we arrive for my first experience of Indian manufacturing.

Manufacturing is a huge growth sector in India and a recent program called ‘Make in India’ aims to make it the new hub of global manufacturing. India already ranks among the ten largest manufacturing countries in the world and by 2015 had risen to sixth position. It seems that every young person I speak to in Chennai is training to be an engineer. But considering that India’s manufacturing sector has the potential to account for 25-30 per cent of the country’s GDP and create up to 90 million domestic jobs by 2025[1], that may be just as well.

Like most people who have worked in the design industry for any length of time, I’ve heard both good and bad reports of Indian manufacturing. Any concerns I may have had are put to rest as Phoenix’s factory is modern, well laid out and very well equipped. Actually it’s not unlike the factories where I worked in the UK, expect for the ceiling fans and ornate wooden carvings. Unlike the factories in the UK, the local diner doesn’t sell greasy bacon and egg rolls, but instead turns out to have some of the best Indian vegetarian food I’ve tasted.

There’s a great team here who have experience working for healthcare giants GE and other multinationals. It doesn’t take us long to model the updated design in Solidworks (CAD) and send the drawings up to another Phoenix facility, this one in Puducherry – about a three hour drive away.

September 2016

Indian’s have a fairly formidable work ethic. Officially the work day starts at 9am but most are there well before that. The factory staff gather for prayer at around 8:45 and then the day begins. Company busses take the workers home at around 6 in the evening but many stay on until 7 or 8. They also work every other Saturday.

Early on a September morning our day begins well before nine as we set out to Puducherry, a city of around 250,000 people. The city itself has French origins (it was originally spelt Pondicherry) and the French influences can be seen in the local architecture and even in the local police who look resplendent in their uniforms; pressed brown trousers, bright white shirts and maroon kepi hats.

Traveling in India is exhausting. Drivers honk their horns constantly. The motorway out of Chennai has six lanes, but it seems the dividing white lines are purely decorative as cars, autowala’s, motorbikes, trucks and the often cows all drive or wander wherever they please. The drivers are constantly changing lanes and trying to get past each other, generally they don’t indicate but hold their hand on the horn. And it never stops, it’s constantly hectic and intense.


Putting the traffic rules to the side (as indeed the Indians tend to do) we arrive to Puducherry around mid-day and begin work on the Lifepod. Much of the Lifepod’s steelwork, including the sub frame, will be made in the Puducherry factory. The factory building appears older than the one in Thirumudivakkam but the machinery is modern, four CNC’s run all day and the guys on the shop floor can knock together a welding jig from mild steel, weld up an aluminium thin walled box or thread cut stainless steel rod. In a few days we’ve got a prototype assembled including the lifting column and are ready to head back to Chennai.

By now it’s Tuesday and I’m told that driving in India at night was ‘not good.’ Unfortunately by the time we’d finished it was 9.30pm, so we set off undeterred even though one of the headlights on the car appeared not to work particularly well, and the other didn’t work at all. All the same we made good progress until about an hour into the journey when a large raindrop hit the windscreen followed by another and another. Torrential rain covered everything and visibility dropped to a few meters. For a city which gets a lot of very heavy rain, Chennai has terrible drainage. Sometimes the roads have none at all so that even a relatively light rain fall creates great puddles which stay until they are evaporated by the sun. Heavy rain will turn the roads into canals and that was what was beginning to happen as we drove. Worse was the lack of visibility. The windscreen wipers weren’t in much better shape than the headlights and as they sluiced the water over the windscreen we sat forward with our noises almost touching the glass trying to see the next obstacle coming out of the darkness. At one point the driver had to jerk the wheel violently to avoid the concrete central divide which wasn’t where we thought it ought to be. A close call with a lorry scared us too so we decided to pull over and almost ended up in a ditch. But as buses and trucks began to serve around us alarmingly we figured we were probably in more danger than if we kept moving so we pressed on. Eventually we passed through the storm and found some dry roads on which we could make better progress. We were then treated to an amazing electrical storm lighting up the clouds as we drove into back into Chennai at around 11.30pm.

As September finishes we have our first prototype sub frame assembled, and both the lifting column (for height adjustment) and the angle actuator are installed and working. Next task is to begin integrating the heating and humidification assembly.


October 2016

It’s now October and monsoon season is approaching. The rain has started already. Last week we were trapped under a shop awning for forty minutes as torrential rain stopped everything without windscreen wipers and a roof. The leaking awning we sheltered under was part of a street kitchen and not surprisingly the trade had died off, so the owner decided that this would be an ideal time to do a little light electrical work. With rain running down her arms she loosened connections and began wiring in a new light fixture. Unfortunately she never got it to work, but neither was she electrocuted, so I guess that’s a reasonable result.

Thankfully the team at Phoenix don’t take the same approach to electronics. This week we’ve been reviewing the Lifepod’s power supply and control systems. The power supply is being designed and prototyped in Australia by Ross Ram of Sym-tech. The team here in Chennai will then integrate it into the Lifepod. It’s a fantastic design with the ability to switch between mains and battery power safely as well as run our heater, fan, actuators and other control mechanisms.

It’s vital that the Lifepod is reliable – it’s going to be sent to some fairly remote locations where we can’t rely on regular servicing. However no product works forever without maintenance and some of the most critical components of the Lifepod are located in the HHU (heating and humidification unit). The HHU is basically a big box which can be slid out of the Lifepod and sent away for servicing if need be.

Some of the components which are being sourced from abroad are delayed so we’re having to source other solutions in-country. Having a laser cutter and 3D printer right here at the factory has been a big help, it doesn’t take the team here long to create prototype parts which will do nicely until the brought-in versions arrive.

November 2016

On the 8th November Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, announced that every five hundred and one thousand rupee note was no longer legal tender. Five hundred rupees is about ten New Zealand dollars, so the two most used notes were those now banned. Anyone in possession of them has until the 30th December to exchange up to ₹2500 a day and could deposit up to 2.5Lakhs (about NZ $5000) into their accounts. Anything beyond that and they incur a rather hefty penalty of 200% interest. Reminting currency is not unusual but what was unusual is that it came as a surprise to pretty well everyone. Only three people in India had prior knowledge of the change and one of those was of course Modi himself. In the morning it was announced most ATM’s and banks were closed. When they eventually opened several days later queues started forming immediately and by the afternoon most banks were out of cash. Credit cards are widely used here but India is far from a cashless society. Generally smaller transactions are still in cash and many of the not so small ones as well – which is part of the problem.

India has a significant problem with black money, a term which can refer to counterfeit currency but more often refers to money from earnings which have not been declared to the taxman. It is estimated that Indian’s have a total of around US $500 billon in undeclared currency throughout the nation – more than any other country in the world. Unfortunately this is a problem at government level as much as on the street. Many deals are brokered as a suitcase stuffed with rupees is nudged quietly under the table. That cash is then tucked away and I’m told that it is not uncommon for politicians and bureaucrats to have huge amounts, perhaps as much as whole rooms, full of undeclared cash. At the other end of the scale many shop owners and taxi drivers are suspected of similar, if less lucrative, practices. A friend’s landlord refused to accept a bank transfer and insisted that they pay the rent in cash. Now that the currency has changed millions of people have found themselves with significant amounts of cash which is effectively un-spendable. Some of it will be legitimate earnings which hasn’t been declared, but much of it will be from bribes and corruption.

All this has led to huge queues at ATM’s, but at least Uber’s are easier to find – presumably because there are fewer customers with cash to spend on rides. As I arrive at the Factory in early November we are finalising how to plumb in the water reservoir and the float gauge. We left the reservoir open the night before as I wanted to see if the float gauge would shut the flow off correctly. As there doesn’t appear to be a large puddle on the ground it seems to have worked.

An incubator is essentially a heater and a humidifier. However controlling the environmental systems and keeping everything clean and sterile can be challenging. The Phoenix team have a wealth of experience designing for hospitals in first and third world countries so they have been able to suggest some changes which will make the Lifepod more user friendly.

One of the challenges of using an incubator in a developing country is the availability of clean water. Incubators have a reservoir which feeds the humidity chamber but if the water poured into that is contaminated there’s potential for that contamination to be spread into the incubator and passed on to the infant. The Lifepod has a very clever system for double filtering water through Swisspro Katadyn filters to stop this happening.

December 2016

Mercifully the weather has cooled somewhat. The evenings and mornings are quite pleasant, although the humidity still gets up during the day. The pleasant evening are slightly spoilt by large, incredibly persistent mosquitoes. Thankfully they don’t generally carry malaria in Southern India.

Recently we have been focusing on the how the user will interact with the Lifepod. Aside from the infant themselves, the control panel is the main point of interaction for anyone using a Lifepod. On it the user can adjust the heat and humidity, monitor the infant and adjust the alarms and other monitoring features. If it’s going to be any good, a user interface needs to be clear, concise, attractive but familiar, responsive, consistent, efficient and forgiving of mistakes. Before I left New Zealand I got to have a look around Fisher & Paykel’s design studio in Dunedin. F&P have a line of kitchenware they make exclusively for the American market. Aside from everything being bigger and more boldly styled, I noticed all the buttons we labelled in English. No symbols or iconography. As most of American only speaks English there’s no need to use iconography the way a product for the European market would. No such luxury for the Lifepod. Our incubator will be used all around the world so a user from Sierra Leone needs to be able to understand it as intuitively as a user from the Solomon Islands. The Lifepod will have a completely new interface which we’ve developed in India and is now being uploaded into Phoenix’s new control panel. The symbols and icons are being scrutinised and tested to see if users find them easily understandable. One person tells me my symbol for an infant lying on its back looks like a duck wearing diapers, so a bit of work needed there yet I guess!

Outside of the digital world communication continues to be challenging as well. Many people here speak both Tamil and Hindi as well as English, but their strong Indian accents make it hard to catch everything they say and they often find it just as hard to understand me. The other day I was drawing some plate work up in Solidworks and one of the local guys came over and started talking to me in what was probably English, and pointing to the Lifepod. However, because I could only catch about one word in ten, it was hard to grasp what he was trying to communicate, so I just smiled and hoped he’d let me get back to work. Unfortunately this seemed to encourage him and he began to wave his arms around and repeat the one word I could understand – ostrich. I know it was ostrich because he checked with a colleague that that was the word he wanted. Yes, the co-worker confirmed, the word you want is ‘ostrich.’ I continued to nod and smile and he seemed pleased if a little surprised. I still have no idea what that conversation was about but I’m a little worried I may find out in some unexpected way.


We’re nearly ready to commence a full build of the Lifepod so another trip to Puducherry will be required soon. Plate work is on order and drawings have been sent to the fabricators to begin the machining of some components. Next month will be my final month in India and it’s important that the Lifepod’s component parts can go on to be made easily and quickly. So on this trip we invest a lot of time in developing welding and bending jigs which will allow the fabricators to assemble and weld future framework quickly and know it will fit correctly.

Much of this work is completed in the final week of December. Out last day in Puducherry finishes at around 7pm on New Year’s evening. As Puducherry is a popular tourist spot we can’t get any local accommodation so it’s back on the bus and onto Chennai. We roll into the city at just past 12 and I celebrate the New Year by missing my stop and having to try to find a taxi amongst the din and hubbub of late night revellers and then get back to the hotel.

January 2017

At last the Lifepod is beginning to look like a real product. The components we’ve ordered from New Zealand, Australia and Singapore have all arrived including the fantastic vacuum formed shells from Acron Plastics in New Zealand. However time is ticking now, I’m due to depart on the 17 January and there’s still plenty to do.

The heating and humidification unit is in place, a beautifully designed counter balance hinge from SouthCo has been fitted to the canopy which allows infinite adjustment, and the four batteries are fitted to the base. A quick trip back to Puducherry is needed to finalise some of the accessories such as the handle and mattress.

It’s been an eventful few months in Chennai. Demonetisation has created challenges, a local politician dying lead to concerns about rioting and resulted in the city going into lock-down for a couple of days. And Cyclone Vardah blew though coursing significant damage, power outages and a couple of deaths.

Back in the Thirumudivakkam we’re working against the clock. There’s still lots to do and some critical testing of components to complete before I depart. The Lifepod has over 250 parts including all the screws and fixings, so there’s a lot to check. Some of the fitting issues need to be tidied up so as to not course any hold-ups in production.

My last full day in Chennai arrives and we now have an assemble Lifepod in front of us. We’ve run through some initial testing but the results need to be checked and the office tidied and drawings handed over to Phoenix staff. But the rioting has started again. Protests over a recent government ban has brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets and Chennai is grinding to a halt. My hotel is smack in the centre of the worst of the protesting and getting back to it this evening and collecting my passport and bags is looking near impossible.

The final check and pass over of information happens fast, a quick tidy up and rushed goodbyes and I depart on the back of a co-workers motor bike – the only vehicle which stands a chance of getting through the traffic jams. With no helmet and only a thin linen shirt, it’s a white-knuckle trip back into Chennai but we arrive back at the hotel and find the streets airily empty. Manufacturing and design is certainly a lot more exciting in India!


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