If India is to emerge as a global furniture hub, it will have to develop technology that enables the world to deal with its small and medium enterprises, says Rama Harinath K, the founder of Prolance. He says that Prolance is a platform for the world, which will make it easy for international design studios to discover and work with Indian counterparts, place orders with Indian manufacturers and procure the components also locally. In a detailed conversation, Harinath told me how Prolance is mending the link between design and manufacture.
You have said that the road from design to commerce is broken. What does that mean?
Furniture designers routinely create designs in 2D and 3D format using the latest software and then call in a manufacturer to provide an estimate and go into production. For an estimate to be made, the design first needs to be broken down into a bill of materials (BOM) and a cut list. It does not happen automatically; the manufacturer must convert the design data into something the machine understands to make a quote and then put the design into production.
Since the conversion from design to production data is done manually, getting it right the first time is no mean task. It is a tedious and iterative process which often requires hours of conferencing with the designer. Most furniture manufacturers are not equipped to accept an order, simply because they do not have the ability to convert a design into production data. That’s why I say that the road from design to commerce is broken.
How does this broken link impact the furniture industry? What is its significance?
This is the reason hundreds, or should I say thousands, of small factories are unable to scale beyond 10-15 projects per month because the designer and manufacturer are not speaking the same language. This is also the reason entrepreneurial designers are unable to easily fructify the vision they had created.
What I have described is how customised furniture is manufactured in India as a matter of routine. There are hours of wasted creativity, days of lost production, perpetuation of underutilised capacity, and a resultant increase in the final cost of the project. Ultimately the customer is the loser because inefficiencies creep into the entire design to production to installation process.
Now, for bringing scale to the modular industry the translation of design to manufacturing has to be automated. Worldwide, scale in manufacturing has been achieved where the modules are fixed in terms of size, colour and hardware. But customisation is important when it comes to the modular industry, as houses come in all sizes and shapes and each customer is different.
Bespoke projects were typically manufactured in smaller manufacturing units since they are geared for customisations. However, they might not be the most efficient. Prolance can translate even non-standard sizes into machine-ready files with no restriction on colour, hardware and accessories. This ensures that the manufacturers’ ability to accept orders is no longer constrained, and they can achieve scale and benefit all the stakeholders in the ecosystem.
Today the government wants made-in-India furniture to be sold across the globe. If India is to emerge as a furniture production hub, this link needs to be mended. Factories must become super-efficient, so they can feed the massive demand that is emerging from new housing and creeping urbanisation.
A lot of innovation is happening in the furniture domain, right from e-commerce to collaboration between stakeholders. What’s unique about Prolance?
Start-ups have indeed disrupted the process by bringing the functions of design, production, and installation onto a common platform. These platforms enable customers to select designs from massive digital libraries, visualise their dream interiors, generate quotes and place orders.
But these are captive platforms. Prolance has gone a step further. We have designed it to completely democratise the design-to-manufacture journey, by offering a B2B SaaS platform where designers, manufacturers and material providers can discover each other. Anyone in the ecosystem whether big or small can take benefit from the automation platform.
How does Prolance transform furniture manufacturing?
There are several features that are together changing the face of furniture production in India. We’ve built Prolance on Sketch Up and AutoCAD, so it’s very easy to use. When a designer creates anything using this platform, she can seamlessly convert the drawings into renders, quotes, bill of material, cut lists and 2D files automatically.
This most basic feature will give small unorganised manufacturers the ability to accept an order, that is, read the design files and convert them into production files. This is the biggest bottleneck that we have addressed – how to accept a drawing and give a quote and manufacture without the need to convert files.
You see, large operators have the technology to integrate the design directly into their manufacturing processes without manual intervention. But for the majority of the production units, there is no systematic way to take an order. The softwares that exist are either too expensive, or enough people are not trained to operate them. Prolance is the bridge, or the operating layer, between the designer and manufacturer. We are also building a cadre of designers trained in Prolance for the markets that we expand to.
For the post-production stage, Prolance offers a QR code solution that helps in packing, logistics and even installation. We have developed this feature to address the challenge of segregation of panels at the site. This is a practical problem, as many panels look similar and usually get force-fitted by the workers. Not only does this damage the panel, but also mars the perfection of the entire furniture.
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The other big transformation we are bringing to the industry is cloud manufacturing. Several manufacturers have integrated with Prolance to offer their capacities, which are often underutilised. Designers who are using Prolance can focus on design, customer engagement and growing their business. They can leverage the factories associated with the platform for manufacturing, and don’t need to spend hours together explaining their drawings and converting files. This flexibility makes it so much easier for both parties to collaborate and achieve cost efficiencies, and ultimately delight their customers. I believe that going forward this feature will encourage international design studios to work with Indian manufacturers.
Prolance is also developing as a marketplace for materials and components, and leading brands are hosting their libraries here. This is another aspect that is helping designers and manufacturers select the best options and create their quotes. We have removed the pain of having to make several calls to vendors just to find out what are the current prices and availability.
How has the industry responded to your innovation?
The response has been terrific. We launched the platform in the middle of 2021 and started onboarding customers in June 2022. The early adoption came from organised manufacturers and large enterprises. Our enterprise customers include leading furniture sellers who have 50-100 designers working for them in-house, such as Pepperfry, Spacewood, NoBroker and Square Yard. More than 1,000 designers, studios and manufacturers from across the country are using our platform. Very recently we onboarded two international clients based out of the UAE as well.
But the chunk of our customers is the small and medium enterprises, who go for either the pay-as-you-go model or annual license fee subscription. For them Prolance is more than a design and manufacturing platform, it is also their extended procurement office.
Going forward Prolance will have a decision support system for the users. It will go beyond showing options and provide suggestions based on various parameters like trends, user preferences, etc.
You would surely have received feedback from the industry. How are you responding to that?
We are an agile company and eager to hear what our customers have to say. Thanks to the feedback we were able to add several features that were not envisaged when Prolance was launched.
Soon we will begin serving other interior categories such as soft furnishings, false ceilings, lighting, loose furniture, and wallpaper and paint. It would be possible for users to design the whole look for a space, calculate costs and material consumption, determine delivery schedules, and place orders with vendors and manufacturers.