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iSpine | Smart Sanitary Napkin Dispenser

January 30, 2020

“I was writing my internal exams during the second year of my engineering and was totally shocked and embarrassed when the Auntie Flo decided to show up unannounced. I panicked, felt so awkward as I was totally unprepared and unequipped to handle the state, that I just bundled all the sheets up and rushed all alone to the shop nearby to buy a napkin, as everyone else was busy writing their exam. While this was the case of an outgoing and socially confident girl, I could only imagine how disastrous and devastating, it is for others less confident to handle such emergencies, as they still consider menstruation disgraceful and have a very little access to good quality menstrual hygiene products” says Harsaavarthini, who has designed a Smart Sanitary Dispenser. She shares her most-cringeworthy experience of how her period blood had seeped through the fabric, leaving a large dark crimson area on the chair she sat on a few minutes back, that only embarrassed her even more.

Harnessing Technology to promote hassle-free Menstruation

Though a lot is being spoken about the importance of creating awareness about menstruation and de-stigmatizing this natural phenomenon among the young girls, the onus of change to ensure the availability, affordability and accessibility of good quality and high-absorbent affordable sanitary napkins in schools, colleges, workplace, public toilets etc. lies in the hands of young innovators and enthusiastic problem solvers with access to creative technologies.

Muthuperiyaval and Harsaavarthini did a part-time Diploma course in Business and People Management at KCTBS during their undergraduation in KCT, that offered them a platform to work on identifying a critical problem in the college campus and designing a technological business solution to the same. They started with the idea of designing a sanitary napkin dispenser to be installed in the college, with an intention to provide young girls, an immediate access to sanitary napkins to help them meet the menstrual emergencies and get rid of uneasiness/discomfort.

According to NFHS 2017–2018, the penetration of sanitary napkin is urban population is 77% and in rural is about 48%. Only 12% of total menstruating women in India use sanitary napkins, the remaining 88% of women resort to alternatives such as unsanitary cloth, ashes, and husk sand. Social norms, cultural taboos, and superstitions associated with menstruation have meant that a large percentage of Indian women continue to rely on unhygienic practices. 72,000 women die out of cervical cancer every year in India and around 70% of all reproduction related disease being recorded in women are due to poor menstrual hygiene.

The team with a mission to take forward the idea to prototype to product and then scale-up to an enterprise, approached FORGE as recommended by Mr. Shankar Vanavarayar, Joint Correspondent, KCT and Founder, FORGE. They then applied with the idea and pitched their concept at the TNSI 101 program organized during December 2017, which aimed to discover, nurture, and fund innovative ideas from students and young graduates with the potential to become innovative products and successful enterprises. The team won admission to ProtoSem 18.2, a 20-week full semester course offered as a comprehensive skills and competency development program for students pursuing engineering/technical/science courses and fosters them with various tools & techniques to solve real-time challenges & problems sponsored by industry, government, etc. It is a part of FORGE.FELLOWS, a pre-incubation innovation & startup fellowship program that aims to catalyze broad-based prototyping activities among the young minds with an aim to create a pipeline of innovations and nurture these problem solvers to create economic impact and social gains with technology.

The government of India has launched several schemes as a part of the Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health (ARSH) component under RCH II. Today, free sanitary pads are provided to rural and urban government schools and MNCs/NGOs have realized the social responsibility and have come forward by initiating steps to significantly increase the accessibility of sanitary napkins to adolescent girls by sponsoring a number of dispensers.

A survey of existing systems to understand Adoption Barriers

The team validated their idea and problem by visiting several government schools including the CCMA School, Govt. Higher Sec. Schools at Ukkadam and Ganapathy to understand the existing Napkin Vending Machine and the associated adoption barriers. The teenagers in government schools had difficulty in accessing the sanitary napkins due to social stigma, inaccessibility, and lack of supplies. In a survey conducted among 350 adolescent girls from the government schools in our locality by the team, a significant 77% of girls had acknowledged that they were not prepared for it until the onset of menarche. 81% of girls in the schools lacked accessibility, 92% reported that they faced availability issues during an emergency, and a shocking 98% were using low-quality napkins. Out of the 10 schools we surveyed there was a demand for around 24,000 napkins/ year at every school while the government offered only 600 napkins[40 times less].

In India, over 20% of girls drop out of schools after reaching puberty, and around 28% miss schools during the menstruation cycle.

The usage of incumbent sanitary napkin dispensers is hindered by the fact that they require a particular type of coin or token to be used. Dispensers that are placed at the government schools are of lower capacity (just 30 napkins per dispenser) and have become unreliable as the stock gets depleted fast and still worse, they lack a monitoring system in place to alert the vendor to refill it. The process of maintenance and refilling is a burden on teachers and school management and the vendors are notified by the management only when the stock falls to zero.

Typically out of 3 machines, 2 are non-functional due to the lack of maintenance as the stock is neither monitored nor replenished. To save the machine from the acts of vandalism, theft or misuse, the dispensers are placed at the Physical Education department mostly under the control of PT staff[sometimes male], which restricts usability and accessibility, the very purpose of offering the napkin vending machines.

Though there are fully automated dispensers in the market designed and built with technical features such that they accept smart IDs, alert the vendor when the quantity of napkin reaches the threshold and with an increased capacity of 100 napkins/machine, many institutions are unable to afford to buy it as they are quite expensive (around Rs.1.5lakh /piece). They also occupy a huge space[750mmX175mmX500mm] and cannot be placed in the compactly built restrooms at schools.

“Functionality matters not, Utility does!”

“Had FORGE not happened in our lives, motivated by the natural tendency of our spirits, we would have built a full-fledged, feature-rich product even before understanding the critical demands of the user. It was at the ProtoSem, that Mr. Vish Sahasranamam, CEO, FORGE introduced the concept of adopting an iterative approach to build a Minimum Usable Prototype with the most critical features that the user demands in a very short time and at low cost optimally utilizing the available resources, convincing enough for the end-user to try it, and to demonstrate with tangible evidence that our solution works, to validate our value proposition and obtain crucial feedbacks. Navigated by the mantra “Functionality matters not, Utility does!” throughout the course, he helped us understand that Prototyping is not aimed at achieving User Acceptance but at proving Customer’s willingness-to-pay.

And our process became even more defined and specific, when Dr. Lakshmi Meera, the Program Director introduced the Design Thinking approach as the first step of adopting to the managed innovation process, that helped us understand the importance of validating the problem/challenge with a holistic human-centered strategy and design solutions that would impact and benefit a large section of the society. Sharing several conceptual insights, she helped us understand that the success of innovations and innovative products, lies more in ruling out the skeptics of the user about the real worth of the solution by designing a product that is technically feasible, economically viable and functionally deployable, than in building a product with the maximum features.” says Muthu Periyaval, the co-founder of iSPINE.

After a study on the existing napkin vending machines and taking the opinion of the target beneficiaries to understand the constraints, our design of dispenser had to ensure round-the-clock availability of good quality napkins[as per the Indian standards], transparency and regularity in monitoring of the equipment to help track usage, stock maintenance, safety, and functional failures apart from building the system with low cost of ownership, and features that are simple to use, easy to integrate and install within the existing infrastructure at schools.

At FORGE, we look forward to offering 5M’s as incubators to the innovators and startups- Means, Methods, Market, Mentoring and Money before we help them transform their innovative idea into an enterprise that creates value, generates revenue, self-sustains, and scale-up effectively. We adopt the process of managed innovation supported by various tools and techniques from iTOOLS, that helps them become specific and defined to the purpose of the innovation, understand and validate problems from the lens of the user, understand the adoption barriers in the existing solution and well-considering the constraints before iteratively designing a user-centric value proposition.

To ensure that highly differentiated and radically innovative new-product ideas don’t lose out to the incremental innovations with a lesser degree of uncertainty and help the innovators get easy access to the early stage innovation grants, we have designed a Product Innovation Rubric, that estimates the risk factor at every stage of the innovation based on with a framework that scores innovations on a scale of 0 to 100 — a Product Innovation Score, consisting of 5 equal weight factors-Problem definition & Customer selection & specificity, Problem significance & magnitude, Customer Motivation, Value Proposition, Effectiveness of MUP Concept in testing Value Proposition, with a max score of 20 points.

Building the right device iteratively

The primary version of the smart sanitary napkin dispenser was based on a spring type mechanism, that dispersed a pad when a coin was inserted. With a breadth of about 300 mm, its capacity was limited to just 30 napkins and had faulty features in the design, for instance with the pushing mechanism, the pad got stuck many times due to the minute plastic wrappers attached to the napkin bottom. When this was tested, they found that presuming the user to possess a coin during menstrual emergencies was a slip-up in their strategy.

They then worked on designing an elliptical vending machine with a pusher and RFID module that seamlessly brought the napkin out without being stuck on scanning their ID cards, but it's capacity utilization proved to be too low. [with a capacity to hold only up to 35 napkins leaving behind high empty space.]

Cylindrical design was the next strategy they had in line with chambers to offer greater space utilization, but in real time, its fabrication was difficult, expensive and had several complications. Finally, the team ended up with an IoT[operated on Wifi]-based circular type machine that has a slotted mechanism in place, equipped with digital technologies to enable girls to easily access the sanitary pads by using authenticated RFID cards/fingerprints/barcode, etc. A notable value of the design is that, with a cloud analytics platform in place, the machine monitors the available stock, tracks the usage pattern to make demand predictions and sends an alert when the quantity reaches the threshold, transferring the responsibility from school management to the iSPINE startup.

iTOOLS for Problem Validation & User Discovery

Sell Outcomes, not Devices

“Vish also introduced the concept of Device-as-a-service business model to take forward the innovative product to malls, workplaces, and other public places, and crash the affordability barriers to promote access to good quality napkins for the masses as well as makes the business commercially profitable. He detailed us the emergence of ‘Software-as-a-service’ business model, and how ‘Pay-as-you-use’, model,designed on the basis of time, number of features, number of users etc. made it practically possible to break away from the risks of buying expensive software not sure as to its utility and usability. Using these dispensers we also aim to test launch bio-degradable organic napkins, which are proven to prevent all side effects of synthetic pads. What better call/opportunity would an Innovation Engineer await than to innovate for a cause,and when all that we have is a product in-hand with a potential to empower the 1.5 crore girl students from 2,50,000 schools across 29 states and 7 Union Territories promoting a menstruation-friendly ecosystem!.” says Arun Kapil who has joined them to convert their innovative idea into a full-fledged startup.

The team participated in IFLA Original Business & Idea Competition held at Kolkatta in December’18 and won an award under the category ‘Original Startup Idea’. The program was organized by ABP groups, one of the foremost Media conglomerate in India, and was empaneled by the Ministry of Electronics & IT, Ministry of Communications & IT, Government of India. They also applied for the EO GSEA[Global Student Entrepreneur Awards], Coimbatore chapter and won Rs.10,000 as runners. This was organized with a vision to empower student entrepreneurs and help them emerge as the world’s most influential change makers.

Harirarajan, a Tech enthusiast and the mechanical designer of iSPINE adds “Like any other typical engineering student would have felt, we often felt insecure and uncertain about the outcomes, because the initial hunt for hardware components from the smallest to biggest, from the chips to systems seemed indefinite taking weeks to months. But at ProtoSem, that offered not just 24 x 7 access to the HWjunction housed inside FORGE.FACTORY, with state-of-the-art equipment and machinery needed across the entire spectrum of innovation, but also to the mentors and experts who guided us from validating the problem with the customer, designing a feasible, affordable and deployable solution, fabricating PCB’s, selecting sensors to completing the mechanical assembly, access to grants and funds, test beds to validate the solution, exploring the possibilities for patents etc.”

On one hand, by offering the dispenser to government schools [25 schools in just Coimbatore with 10,500 girl students] and enabling the young girls to access the napkin without the intervention of teachers or housekeepers, they aim to not only promote stress-free menstruation, but also create better awareness of menstrual hygiene by bringing good quality napkins funded by CSR grants with the supply managed very transparently and ensure subsidies reach the beneficiaries. While on the other track, they are planning to offer the machine to corporates and colleges through Device-as-a-service model to ensure hassle-free menstruation everywhere.