21 October 2017 11:16:07 IST

An Apple in your Tyffyn

An engineer decides to pack a punch with tiffin boxes

It’s probably the kind of tiffin box that Steve Jobs would have made. The Vaya Tyffyn, as it’s called, is sleek, sophisticated and expensive. It’s no coincidence that its creator, Vashist Vasanthakumar, once worked with Apple. And like the late founder of Apple, Vasanthakumar too loves everything at the intersection of engineering and design.

“In school one was taught that when you make something, it’s what’s inside the product that matters. Only that makes it sell,” he says, seated at his office in Chennai’s Aminjikarai neighbourhood, not far from Anna Nagar, where he grew up. But the design revolution unleashed by Apple with its iPods and iPhones proved an eye-opener.

“It’s the tech geeks and engineering folks for whom it matters what’s inside a product. Most others don’t care so long as the product looks good, is functional and useful,” says the 32-year-old engineering postgraduate from University of Michigan. For someone used to obsessing about things like microprocessors, he was suddenly confronted by the importance of design and functionality. He decided to bring in the concept of engineering and design to everyday products.

To start with, the tiffin box his company Vaya Life makes doesn’t open from the top like a conventional one. Based on the fundamental principle that heat always rises to the top, Vasanthakumar realised that conventional lunch boxes fail to keep food warm long enough as they let out the heat when opened from the top.

“We found that just by sealing it from the top saves 15 per cent of the heat,” he says. The Vaya tiffin opens from the bottom, much like removing a tea cosy from a hot pot of tea under it. The design also creates a ‘positive pressure’ on the inside container, so “it’s all sitting locked in,” he explains.

Another crucial difference was made by the specially designed latches. In traditional tiffins, the latches are typically welded to the body, but they allow the heat to dissipate. In Vaya’s Tyffyn, the latches are welded onto a thin piece of steel, and this prevents leakage of heat. Moreover, the latch is laser welded, making it very durable, he says.

Vasanthakumar and his team tested up to 40 prototypes of the latches at the company’s facility in southern China. “We used the same laser welding technology that is used in the aviation industry, to get the right strength,” he says. That required trying out 20 different kinds of laser machines before finding the right one.

It was again his experience at Apple that made him choose China as his manufacturing base. Having joined the California-based technology company in 2006, just a year before the iPhone was introduced, he was a junior member of the supply chain management team in charge of the customised parts for the handset. The work took him to Europe, Taiwan, Japan and China. He was impressed by the speed at which projects moved in China.

“The whole ecosystem is in place there. Like for laser technology, I can find five of them with products from Japan, China and Germany and, in no time, we would be up and running,” says Vasanthakumar, who rose to become a director (which is a step or two away from senior management level) by the time he left Apple in 2016. Even though he had wanted to set up a manufacturing facility in India, he was deterred by the difficulties his friends faced in getting government approvals.

After about 70 prototypes, the product was finally ready to go on the assembly line and the first lot hit the market in November 2016. About 700 pieces were shipped in the first month. By July 2017, the sales had increased to 12,000 pieces a month. Nearly 70 per cent of the orders came from India, and the rest from Malaysia, the Philippines and the US. Online orders formed the bulk of it, even as the company is trying to sell offline through high-end stores in Chennai and Bengaluru. “We want to gradually build a presence in Delhi and Mumbai,” he says.

At Connexions, a lifestyle shop in Anna Nagar, the product has been selling well through word of mouth, says the manager Hari Kumar. There was just one piece left on the shelf. “We have asked for more stocks,” says Kumar.

The price starts at a little below ₹2,000 and goes up to ₹3,800 for the variant that comes in a gold finish.

“It’s surprising how this variant has taken off. Many of our customers buy it before going to the US,” says Vasanthakumar. Along the way, there have been slick ad campaigns, all produced in-house, driving the sales. The customer care team is 10-strong. “Have you ever heard of a ‘customer care’ to sell tiffins?” the manufacturer asks.

Even as he plans to introduce more variants, including a kiddie range, for the tiffin box, he is latching on to newer ideas.

“Drinkware will be our take on bottles. When you see it you won’t think it’s a bottle,” he says. Then there’s the food storage space to be tapped. “It’s a bigger market and we have some unique ideas to solve some of the problems that people have.”

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)