Boosting the signal: How Productiv and Bladon Micro Turbine are bringing connectivity to the world’s most remote areas
Mobile phones have changed the way in which the world communicates, but their functionality can only be as good as the signal they receive.
The demand for mobile network availability is growing in the world’s more remote and inaccessible regions, creating a major challenge for companies in this sector: how to develop new, robust telecommunications infrastructure that’s reliable, simple to install and inexpensive to maintain.
The development of new mobile networks tends to be expensive. In populated areas, energy and maintenance account for over half of a phone mast operator’s costs. In more remote areas, particularly certain parts of Asia and Africa, access to a consistent source of power is rarely guaranteed, which only pushes the price even higher. This means that companies need alternative sources of power to enable development of remote mobile networks.
Next gen gensets?
The use of a diesel generator, or genset, has been the traditional approach to tackling this issue. While generally reliable, these units must be refuelled regularly – a substantial undertaking if there are multiple masts located many miles apart on poor quality roads. Regular breakdowns can also occur, particularly if an operator is not monitoring a unit regularly via a predictive maintenance system, for example. Other disadvantages of diesel gensets include inefficiency (because they run at a constant speed), noise, pollution and their desirability as a target for thieves.
These issues are causing a shift towards less energy-intensive power sources with lower maintenance requirements, more reliability and added security. Among these technologies is the microturbine genset (MTG), a multi-fuel generator for phone masts that is currently being championed by UK company Bladon Micro Turbine.
Moving on to MTG
In contrast to diesel gensets, MTGs can run off a mixture of different fuel types, such as diesel, kerosene or a combination of the two. This, along with the fact that MTG parts cannot be used in traditional diesel gensets or road vehicles, helps to deter thieves by making it more difficult for the unit to be repurposed elsewhere. Each MTG can also be monitored and controlled remotely in real time with a special controller that is supplied with the product.
Crucially, an MTG requires fewer service visits than a diesel genset, thus significantly reducing maintenance costs for operators. Depending on the location, MTGs can last a month (as opposed to several days) before an on-site service is needed.
Coventry-based Bladon is the world’s first manufacturer of microturbine gensets for the telecoms market. Supported by venture engineering services provider Productiv, Bladon has developed the Bladon MTG, an ultra-low vibration product and the world’s only EURO V Compliant 12kW diesel genset. At <65dB per 1m, it is also the quietest genset on the market.
The company developed its first prototype of the Bladon MTG in 2014 but did not have the in-house resources to optimise its manufacturing design and commercialise the product. As Bladon’s director Philip Lelliott explains, additional help was needed to take the prototype forward:
“We were looking at several possible markets and applications for the prototype, including range extension for electric vehicles. In the end, it was Productiv that worked with us when the telecoms market was identified.”
Bladon soon asked Productiv to get involved in the design, manufacture and commercialisation processes, with speed of the essence in all three cases.
“The Productiv team started by validating the design and recommending adjustments,” Philip says. “We then revised these designs based on their feedback and started looking at suitable opportunities and penetration points in the telecoms market.”
Getting it right first time
As the company agreed the final design and came closer to assembly, Productiv supported Bladon by developing what it calls a ‘guided sequence’. This broke down the assembly of each MTG into 1,000 individual steps, including: powerplant insulation, electrical wiring, fuel and air systems, dump resistors, door locking mechanisms, powerplant mounting, turbine and alternators, cabinet panels, combustors, battery assembly, and final assembly.
Productiv then reviewed each step to ensure that it was optimised, while removing any stages that the team deemed unnecessary, collating the remaining steps into a clear, easy-to-follow guide.
The Productiv team identified several potential issues during this process. Access to the recuperator-end of the powerplant insulation, for example, was restricted, making it difficult to insert fixing bolts. The insulation material’s thickness was also inconsistent, which meant that an engineer had to individually measure each component before cutting the material.
The installation of the dump resistors also risked incorrect orientation and assembly of the system. In these cases, Productiv created clear photographic guides to demonstrate best practice for assembly, as well as an idea of what the components should look like once complete.
“The guided sequence that Productiv created has since become our assembly team’s bible,” Philip says. “We’re now installed at Productiv’s own facility, The Proving Factory, where we plan to manufacture one MTG every 12 minutes.”
A Productiv partnership
Bladon Micro Turbine is now entering volume production for its MTG, which may soon power many of the millions of phone masts available worldwide. The company has also received its first major order from a leading mobile phone tower operator.
“Correct assembly of the MTGs has been vital to ensuring quality control and optimum performance,” Philip says. “The Productiv team’s painstaking efforts to identify and address any possible issues has helped us to create a complete assembly blueprint which we can now take forward into volume production.”
For further information visit www.productivgroup.com.
5 minutes with... Janthana Kaenprakhamroy, CEO, Tapoly
Founder and CEO of award-winning insurtech firm Tapoly, Janthana Kaenprakhamroy heads up Europe’s first on-demand insurance platform for the gig economy, winning industry awards, innovating in the digital insurance space, and leading with inclusivity.
Here, Business Chief talks to Janthana about her leadership style and skills.
What do you do, in a nutshell?
I’m founder and CEO of Tapoly, a digital MGA providing a full stack of commercial lines insurance specifically for SMEs and freelancers, as well as a SaaS solution to connect insurers with their distribution partners. We build bespoke, end-to-end platforms encompassing the whole customer journey, but can also integrate our APIs within existing systems. We were proud to win Insurance Provider of the Year at the British Small Business Awards 2018 and receive silver in the Insurtech category at the Efma & Accenture Innovation in Insurance Awards 2019.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I try to be as inclusive a leader as possible. I’m committed to creating space for everyone to shine. Many of the roles at Tapoly are performed by women and I speak at industry events to encourage more people to get involved in insurance/insurtech. Similarly, I always try to maintain a growth mindset. I think it’s important to retain values to support learning and development, like reliability, working hard and punctuality.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
Build your network and seek advice. As a leader, you need smart people around you to help you grow your business. It’s not about personally being the best, but being able to find resources and get help where needed.
How do you see leadership changing in a COVID world?
I think the pandemic has proven the importance of inclusive leadership so that everyone feels supported and valued. It’s also shown the importance of being flexible as a leader. We’ve had to remain adaptable to continue delivering high levels of customer service. This flexibility has also been important when supporting employees as everyone has had individual pressures to deal with during this time. Leaders should continue to embed this flexibility within their organisations moving forward.
They say ‘from every crisis comes opportunity’, what opportunities do you see?
The past year has been challenging, but it has also proven the importance of digital transformation in insurance. When working from home was required, it was much harder for insurers to adjust who had not embedded technology within their operating processes because they did not have data stored in the cloud and it caused communication delays with concerned customers at a time when this communication should have been a priority, which ultimately impacts the level of customer satisfaction. This demonstrates the importance of what we are trying to achieve at Tapoly in driving digitalisation in insurance and making communication between insurers and distribution partners seamless.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
Start sooner, don’t be afraid to take (calculated) risks and make sure you raise enough money to get you through the initial seed stage.