It was four years ago when a casual conversation with a colleague about drones triggered Gopinath Marappan’s interest in tinkering with electronics. A senior principal engineer with Dell EMC in Bengaluru, Marappan, 44, was so intrigued by the chat that he tried assembling a drone at home. Since then, Marappan has been slowly trying to turn his house into a smart home.

A practical pastime

It’s not just fun and games though. Most of Marappan’s projects fulfil a pragmatic purpose. For instance, about two years ago, when he was suffering from a severe back problem, one of the things that he wanted to change in his routine was sitting for long hours at his desk.

“I came across standing desks online but very few were available locally and most were expensive (above 50,000). I would have bought one but the problem was that the tables were too big. Since I had a computer table at home, I thought of modifying it into a standing desk," he says.

With the aid of technology platforms such as Arduino (an open-source software and hardware platform enabling users to create interactive electronic objects), Marappan was able to create a desk that would rise with the push of a button. “Since I like to customize everything, I added more sensors. For example, if you sit continuously for 30 minutes, the desk will start rising on its own." He can operate it with his phone.

Another pet project of Marappan is using Amazon’s Echo voice assistant software to operate lights, fans and his standing desk. While there are companies that offer such smart lighting, Marappan decided to do things his own way. “I like to add a twist to suit my requirements and budget. I installed a strip of LED lights in my living (room), which can change colours and be operated through voice command or phone. I had to write some programmes to integrate ECHO for this."

Work and play

With a 10-6 work routine, Marappan admits it isn’t always easy to make time for his projects. “There have been times when I haven’t been able to work on anything for a month or so. But the good thing is that I can work from home once or twice a week and that adds a bit of flexibility to my routine," he says.

Marappan believes his hobby has helped him at work and vice-versa. “A protocol I learnt in a hobby project is helping me implement a new project at work. There is some overlap between my hobby and work," Marappan says. He has even conducted a two-hour class on Arduino for his team.

But it’s not always easy for him to source equipment for his projects. “In the US, there are dedicated hobby shops, where people can get everything they need. I remember this one time I needed five-six specialized nuts for my 3D printer. I went to many shops in Bengaluru but none of them were willing to sell such a small quantity; they wanted a minimum order of 100 pieces," he says. Marappan mostly orders products online through eBay or AliExpress. His most expensive investment so far has been the 3D printer that he bought online. “I had ordered one of the cheaper ones costing 15,000 but over time, I have added many components to improve the printer and have consequently spent about two-three times the original cost of the printer."

While Marappan describes himself as a tinkerer and maker on his LinkedIn profile page, he hasn’t reached a point where he could consider pursuing it full-time. “When I had shared a link to my blog (where he has written about his home automation projects) on some Facebook groups I follow, some people did approach me, asking if I would be interested in monetizing this. But being in the software industry, I know that commercializing a prototype is quite complicated and I decided it was too much of a risk for me," he says.

Marappan, however, has collaborated with a maker space in Bengaluru, where he helped them with technical work on an art installation that was part of the 2015 Maker Faire.

“When I started out with this hobby, the concept of maker spaces wasn’t as widespread. Most of what I have learnt is through online research and Facebook groups," he says.

For Marappan, the sense of satisfaction from having created something on his own is his greatest takeaway. “I have always loved tinkering from my childhood. And now, I can think about a new idea, visualize it and then actually make it. And sometimes it turns out much better than you expect it to. That definitely is a good feeling."

The Makers follows professionals who spend weekends working on their hobbies.