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Cotton Wick Making Machine - a case study of in situ incubation

By Vijaybhai Solanki, Dipakbhai Vyas, Mahesh Patel, Sanid Patil, Javed Pathan, Nazim Sheikh, Rakesh Maheshwari and Tushar Garg

Lighting an oil lamp with cotton wicks is a daily ritual in millions of homes in India. The traditional process of cotton wick making is manual and laborious. Two innovators, Vijaybhai Solanki and Deepakbhai Vyas, developed a machine to reduce the drudgery in making round cotton wicks. This article describes the in-situab incubation of the two innovators. The incubation project helped the various stakeholders work together and co-create the above grassroots innovation, which was highly valued by the end users. The cotton wick making machine has increased the productivity of the wick makers, and has provided livelihood to many women in rural and semi-urban areas.

Most Indians light an oil or ghee lamp at home every day as a ritual during their worship (Puja). Some do it in front of a god’s idol, some in front of a Tulsi plant; some do it at dawn, and some at dusk. An important component of the oil lamp is the cotton wick, which is kept partially immersed in oil, held in a cup of baked clay or metal. In spite of the regularity with which wicks are used by millions of Indians, very few of them know that wick making is a laborious process, and any attempt at reducing this drudgery would be a worthwhile undertaking.

The cotton wicks used in the lamps come in two varieties: the long (or straight) wicks, and the round (or puffed) wicks. While the long wicks look like a straight thread, the round ones have a puffed up base. Because of their base, the round wicks, when placed at the centre of a lamp, stand with stability on their own. The long wicks, on the other hand, need a support, and are, therefore, arranged along the inner side of the lamp.

  Figure 1: Women Making Cotton wicks

Traditional wick making is manual and involves processes like spinning from a lump of cotton, or drawing threads from yarn, and then turning and twisting them. The production of long cotton wicks has been mechanized for some years, but the round ones are still produced manually. This activity is performed by women, within their households, in their spare time. Traders provide raw cotton to the women, and buy back the wicks produced by them. These are then packed in small packets and sold in the market. A packet of 100 wicks is priced at around INR 45. Wick making serves as an additional source of income for the women engaged in it.

Initial Efforts of the Innovators

Vijaybhai Solanki failed to clear the Secondary School Certificate examinations and opted for TV and Radio repairing in the early days of his life in Veraval, Gujarat. Unable to secure financial stability in his personal life, he migrated with his family to Ahmedabad, where he started providing a tiffin service to bus drivers in the northern part of Ahmedabad. His friend Dipakbhai Vyas, who studied until 7th class, ventured into trading and selling cotton wicks to households.  Being a trader, he recognized the supply constraints in the demand driven market of cotton wicks. He further observed that this mismatch existed due to the lack of machines for making round cotton wicks. He shared this concern with Vijaybhai, whose creative mind instinctively accepted this opportunity as a challenge.

  Figure 2: First working model

Description: C:\Users\Arpit\Desktop\Cotton Wick Machine\visit on 10.04.2013\DSC06829.JPGText Box: Figure 2: First working modelIn 2009, Vijaybhai gave up his job and dedicated his time to developing a machine for round cotton wicks. Initially, in spite of much effort, he could not develop even a basic working model of the machine he had in his mind. He thought his efforts reached a dead end, and was clueless about how to proceed further. But, suddenly, his journey in a rickshaw one day from his home to his factory showed him the way ahead. Sitting beside the driver in the jam packed rickshaw, the only thing Vijaybhai saw was a wiper, which cleared the rain drops on the windshield. Immediately, he realized that the wiper mechanism could be put to use in the model that he was struggling to develop.

Thus, the first working model of the machine ended up having two wiper mechanisms and four small motors, one each for plucking the cotton, fitting the cotton into a mold, pressing it to form round cotton wick, and pasting wax on it. The machine produced one wick in 5 seconds, that is 12 wicks/min, or 72 wicks/hr.

The idea was shaped into an innovation with Vijaybhai’s technical inputs and Dipakbhai’s financial resources and market insights. However, the end of their innovation project was still not in sight, and they had to struggle with further difficulties.

The development process was delayed by almost three years, because the innovators suffered from lack of funds, and lack of technical and mentoring support. By 2012, the innovators almost stopped working on the innovation. In three years, both of them incurred an overall financial loss of INR 5, 00, 000 while working on this idea. In 2012, uncertainty in demand in his tiffin service forced Vijaybhai to go back to his native place, where he came in contact with the Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN) team.

GIANc team studied the innovation and submitted an entry to National Innovation Foundation - Indiad (NIF) (database ref: 81GJ01A7979)e. The idea was evaluated on the following criteria: a) novelty, b) potential demand from the household women who make cotton wicks manually, and c) the social impact of the proposed product. Based on the evaluation, GIAN decided to work on the project of developing a prototype machine for producing round cotton wicks, and started providing incubation support to the innovators. This involved mentoring the innovators in their work, and providing them with financial and technical support.

Incubation Support by GIAN-NIF

The incubation team linked the innovators with multiple stakeholders, so that the prototype could be developed simultaneously at three different locations.

Prototype 1: As a preliminary approach, in order to sustain the spirit of the innovators and keep them motivated, the incubation team encouraged them to work on their prototype by themselves, and equipped them with enough finances. The team frequently visited the innovators’ place and mentored them in technical matters such as which components are available off the shelf, and which need to be developed. Such mentoring was needed because grassroots innovators are not aware of the concept of basic engineering SMC (Standard Machine Component). In the process of mentoring the innovators, the GIAN-NIF team also learnt a lot. They gained immense insights into the mind-set of the innovators, and their strengths and weaknesses. Such insights helped the GIAN-NIF team in working closely and effectively with the innovators.

Prototype 2: In another approach, the team collaborated with a local professional designer to work on refining the technology and providing design inputs to the innovators. Unfortunately, the designer worked in isolation, without interacting with the innovators or the consumers, and failed to deliver a functional product

Prototype 2 developed by the designer was very good, in ergonomics and design. However, it did not have a dropping mechanism, which was introduced in another version developed by the designer. In this version, the motor did not run constantly, leaving intervals in between, wherein the manual wick dropping mechanism was to be used. However, the wick dropping mechanism, located in the front part of the machine, was unacceptable to the consumers.  Since, no other alternative could be offered by the designer, the incubation team terminated the assignment with the designer, after documenting the learning from the assignment and recording the technical inputs.

The learning from the above experience was quite simple and straightforward: frequent interaction between designers, innovators, and prospective customers is very essential for the success of a proto type development project.

Prototype 3: As a part of third approach, the prototype development work was undertaken by the in-house engineering team at NIF’s Fab Lab and the innovators. In this prototype, for the first time, a proper mechanism for dropping the wicks was developed. However the prototype as a whole was complex, crude, and user-unfriendly. Thecomponents used for the wick dropping mechanism were made from acrylic sheet, which was not durable. Hence, the dropping mechanism served merely as a base for further work. Further refinements to the above prototype resulted in model 2.

Prototype 4: At this stage, the incubation team involved in the proto type development, Paresh Panchalf, who is a successful entrepreneur and grassroots innovator. The aim of the project team at this point was to develop a compact, market ready version of the machine. Panchal’s inputs were critical in sourcing two important components a) small motor having high RPM and torque; b) a small collate, a component to hold the needle. Further, he designed gears with which the motor was directly connected. This work resulted in model 1. This model was used by consumers during field trials in Bhuvaladi village and Khokhra area of Ahmedabad. The consumers found during these trials that the gears were not moving at desired speed. Therefore, the design was changed to obtain model 2.  The major new introduction in this model was a set of three pulleys connected by a belt. This modification ensured good performance, providing high RPM and torque, and facilitated the fall of cotton wicks automatically.

While providing the above help, Panchal spent his own money, labour, time, and work shop facilities, without charging for them from GIAN. The importance and relevance of the social capital of Honeybee Network and its role in maintaining the spirit of grassroots innovators is noteworthy in this casegh.

On the whole, Paresh Panchal’s being an innovator, and entrepreneur, and his earlier participation in GIANs incubation process yielded immense benefits to the current project. Specifically:

  • He continually engaged with the innovators and understood the problems from their perspective,
  • He paved the way for production scale-up by insisting on the use of off the shelf components, as much as possible, and
  • He made the product develop ment process effective and efficient.


The Final Product: The entire learning and insights obtained in the earlier phases by the innovators, consumers, and designers were integrated in the final prototype, which turned out to be  compact, portable, affordable, and easy to use and maintain. This output which emerged from the efforts of all the stake holders was appreciated by the innovators. The main features of the different versions of the prototype are summarized in the following table:



Manual Process

Innovator’s 1st working model

Prototype 4 (Model 2)

Final Product

Productivity/Output* (per minute)

8-10 units

12 units

20-25 units

40-55 units



12 Kg

6.8 kg

10.5 kg

Power Consumption


110 watt

50 watt

50 watt

* based on field trials conduct by GIAN

The innovators were conferred with a national award during NIF’s Eighth National Biennial Grassroots Innovation Awards, 2015i.


Figure 3: Different models developed during product development phase (L-R: Prototype 2, Prototype 4 (Model 2), Prototype 3 (Model 2), Final Product and Prototype 4 (Model 1)


In developing a prototype, remember the following:

  1. First develop a basic model with a small number of core functions
  2. Then incorporate the remaining functions in phases
  3. A typical set of phases could be:

i.  Develop a manual version

ii. Develop a semi-automatic version

iii. Develop a fully automatic version




Figure 4: Women using the final product

Description: C:\Users\maheshpatel\Desktop\DSC08166.JPG

Text Box: Figure 4: Women using the final productThe product development phase had its challenges, but by adopting a holistic approach, the GIAN NIF team succeeded in launching the cotton wick machine in the market. The innovators have already sold about 500 machines as on June 2016, and are now focusing on extending their innovation in various ways.  Current price of the machine is about INR 15,500. Some examples are development of cotton wick with fragrance and colour, and development of wick with ghee. The machine so far has been instrumental in providing employment and livelihood to more than 1000 women (Figure 4).  

Recently, GIAN, with the involvement of the Directorate of Sainik Welfare and Resettlement organisation of Gujarat State, have implemented new entrepreneurship models for ex-servicemen to boost their income and utilise their latent skills. Under the first phase of the above project, NIF provided fifteen cotton wick making machines to wives, mostly widows, of ex-servicemen for livelihood generation in the underprivileged, rural regions of the state. These women will manufacture cotton wicks and the Directorate of Sainik Welfare and Resettlement organisation will help them sell the wicks in army canteens.

New markets outside the state of Gujarat are also being explored. One such case is the state of Orissa, where there is a high demand for the product. However, a drawback of the state is that it does not have a good supply of electricity. To solve this problem, a new version of the wick making machine powered by solar energy has been developed.

Our experience suggests that prototype development has to be executed on multiple fronts with various stakeholders.  Healthy interaction between innovators, fabricators, designers and project team is essential for the success of such projects. As a matter of fact, frequent informal and unplanned discussions between the stake holders yielded better results than occasional planned discussions. The stakeholders should collaborate with one another and co-create the product than waste their resources in isolated struggles. In situ incubation plays a vital role in augmenting grassroots innovation. The innovators should never ignore the basic need for their innovation; they should never lose touch with the intended users of their product; and they should constantly interact with those from whom the idea of the innovation has emerged. Otherwise, there is no guarantee that the innovators’ efforts would bear fruit. A particularly noteworthy point in the above innovation is that the new machine enhances the productivity of the laborers, and does not replace them.  


[a]Gupta AK 2015. Nine reasons why India needs in-situ incubation, Article published in DNA Ahmedabad. (

[b]Gupta AK 2016. Grassroots Innovation: Minds On the Margin Are Not Marginal Minds Publisher - Random House, ISBN-13: 978-8184005875





[g] Gupta AK et al 2003. Mobilizing grassroots’ technological innovations and traditional knowledge, values and institutions: articulating social and ethical capital, Futures 35 (2003) 975–987, ScienceDirect.

[h] Gupta AK. Sink to Source: Transformation through Creativity, compassion, collaboration and competitiveness (


Technomic Review/Cotton Wick Making Machine: a case study of in situ incubation /TR-2016-06-0007/



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August 05,2016

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