The story of Lontra and the remarkable entrepreneur who founded it is one of engineering, technology, sustainability and above all else, curiosity.
Founded in 2004 in Warwickshire, Lontra is a technology company that develops innovative products that address traditional engineering challenges.
Having already undergone several operational ‘pivots’, the latest phase in Lontra’s ambitious evolution involves the internet of things, intelligent algorithms, a smart factory, predictive maintenance and the creation of high value, meaningful jobs.
In many respects, Lontra proves what happens when tech hype meets real world application. But first, some backstory.
The cutting edge
Heavy industry depends upon compressors to deliver power to manufacturing lines, drive furnaces and convey materials. Compressors account for a staggering 10% of Europe’s electricity use and as much as 40% in some plants. That equates to more than 10TWh of electricity every year and some 4.3 million tonnes of CO2.
Though ubiquitous, most compressors suffer from air leakage or insufficient compression. Additionally, compressors can run up high costs in terms of maintenance and downtime.
An improvement in their design would therefore generate a substantial difference to energy usage globally. Yet, the last step-change came in 1935 with the helical lobe screw compressor. Despite being a crucial part of everyday life, there has been no major innovation in compressors for almost 80 years.
Enter self-confessed problem solver Steve Lindsey, CEO and founder of Lontra. His flagship invention, the Blade Compressor, represents a step change in air compressor technology.
Because air compressors are used across such a large number of industries, the Blade Compressor has the potential to cut carbon footprints across many energy-intensive sectors
It takes the traditional piston and cylinder but wraps the unit inside a ring – replacing the up-and-down movement with a circular mechanism, delivered via a rotating blade. The simple design involves a constantly open intake port, without valves. As the piston or ‘blade’ rotates, air or gas is drawn in from behind and compressed in front of it in a continuous cycle, minimising waste.
Thanks to its unique design, the Blade Compressor has proven to be up to a third more efficient than traditional units, which is significant given that many companies try to optimise for gains of just 1% or 2%. The patent-protected, double-acting compressor also has the added advantages of oil-free operation, increased reliability and durability, with far lower energy usage and easy to manufacture.
Originally, Lontra would develop technology which would then be licenced to a large company to manufacture and sell. However, thanks in part to the exposure Steve received from being nominated for the European Inventor Award, Lontra took control of its own destiny and moved into manufacturing.
The next stages in Lontra’s expansion involve a high-value digital services centre, a customer support operation and a future manufacturing plant – all to be based in Sheffield. Jonny Williamson caught up with Steve to learn more.
What’s the impetus behind developing and building Lontra’s global digital services business?
Steve Lindsey: A compressor is roughly the same size as an automotive engine and like an engine, once we moved into manufacturing, we realised we had to develop the rest of the car. That includes the enclosure, the silencers (or mufflers), the valves, the motor and the controls.
That journey has allowed the team to develop a wide range of additional new technologies, many of which I think will spin out. It was always in the back of our mind to develop a digital services business because when you develop and manufacture a product from scratch, you have the opportunity to fundamentally address what it is that the customer actually wants.
Increasingly, businesses want to move from having to maintain a machine themselves to outsourcing that maintenance, to eventually buying that machine as a service. Compressors sit at the centre of manufacturing operations and one of our customers noted that they would pay a significant amount for reduced downtime and increased reliability. That chance comment got us thinking about how we could deliver that.
At its heart, this is about bringing global jobs locally. Almost every factory will have a maintenance person or team whose job is to keep machines running. They spend their days in and around those machines and regardless of whether an alarm has been triggered or not, they can tell whether something doesn’t sound quite right and there’s a potential problem.
Now, thanks to data collection and machine learning, instead of that expert walking around just one factory, they can be maintaining 30 factories all around the world and can do it while sat in Sheffield.
Did you take inspiration from a particular manufacturer offering a similar service, albeit for a different product or in another sector?
We’ve done a lot of research into the market and we’ve pulled apart the protocols of how it is being done and how it could be done more effectively. Our preferred method, however, is to start with a clean sheet and solve the challenge of developing a lightweight, clean system that provides end-to-end data securely and ultimately provides the customer with a better experience.
Do you have the ability currently to optimise machine performance remotely?
It’s certainly something we’ve scheduled for future investigation. Some education of the industry is needed first though because manufacturing isn’t used to secure IoT end-to-end and so some are understandably nervous of having a machine that can be controlled externally.
Software is great at anomaly detection or statistical-based analysis. But it only gets you 90% of the way there and still contains the biases of that data. You still need human judgement to determine whether a course of action is sensible or not and add that extra value to the customer. So, this isn’t about replacing humans; this is about making life easier for them.
Another interesting aspect, as a potential customer recently asked, is once we’ve put our compressors into a factory, could Lontra also then maintain the valves and the parts which surround it. I can see this spreading out and Lontra managing a wide variety of factory equipment and processes through the same infrastructure, helping to reduce waste and energy and improve sustainability even further.
With a compressor, you’re monitoring a superset of most things you would want to monitor – power, pressure, temperature, airflow, etc. Once you have the secure infrastructure, you can monitor a whole host of things in many different environments. That’s the great thing about Lontra’s core product, the compressor, it operates in so many fields, it’s a very useful entry point.
Lontra’s new production line in Birmingham
You’ve started production of your first product, the LP2 Blade Compressor, at Lontra’s new assembly line in Birmingham. These are due to be exported to North America where you have established distribution and sales channels in places. Why is the US such a major focus for you?
It’s a very large market. Depending on the sector, between a quarter and a third of machines of this type are sold in the US. Given that, it makes more sense to focus on the US than the UK.
The US is also largely a distributor-based market. As the market is so large and widely dispersed, these distributors are also big. That means you don’t need to deal with that many in order to achieve a very broad coverage. They are also full service distributors, which means we don’t need our own in-country service team. That makes it an efficient way for a company like ours to access the market.
The other benefits are internal. One of our non-exec directors is US based, he used to run the fourth largest compressor company in the world and knows the US market incredibly well. Our new commercial director moved to the US when he was five and also knows the market incredibly well having run the EMEA arm of what is currently the fourth largest compressor company.
In November 2020, we also achieved the major milestone of receiving UL certification [a globally recognised US electrical safety accreditation] for the LP2 machine, a vital step in securing sales in the US.
Lontra’s LP2 machine, featuring Blade Compressor technology
Lontra was recently awarded a £1.58m grant from the Sheffield City Region Local Growth Fund to open a digital services centre. Where are you in terms of its development?
We’ve announced that it will be on or close to the Advanced Manufacturing Park (AMP) at Catcliffe and we’ve recruited the first two people into that team. The new facility is expected to create more than 50 high-value jobs as well as a number technical positions, some of which will be filled by local graduates and apprentices.
Locating the operation in Sheffield means having access to an abundance of skilled workers and being able to build our supplier network on a local basis. We see it as a real win-win for both us and the local economy.
Alongside the digital centre, we are going to set up a customer support operation in a new building also at the AMP. This will enable Lontra to undertake R&D activities with customers to support the development of innovative new products. We are also building a new ‘smart’ factory in Sheffield which will provide further new engineering, R&D and technical support jobs.
By manufacturing machines with predictive maintenance and IoT in mind, Lontra has a huge amount of processing power at the heart of its manufacturing process
There are varying definitions of what exactly a ‘smart factory’ is. What does it mean to you?
For our compressors, we’re looking at data collection and advanced processing in order to trace anomalies
optimise performance and generate efficiencies. It’s taking that principle, and in fact the same software platform, and applying it holistically to a production facility.
Once you’ve achieved factory-wide connectivity and made production as efficient as possible, you can then start to close the loop and make everything else more efficient, such as R&D, customer service, supply chain, the whole value chain. We’re taking the thinking that has revolutionised the consumer world, such as ‘one click ordering’, fully integrated supply chains and dynamic airline pricing, and bringing it into manufacturing.
Many manufacturers will be exploring how to introduce some form of digital service offering. What advice do you have for them?
Identify what it is that your customer actually wants and work back from that. What is the lightest, most efficient, most sustainable, simplest way of delivering that? A lot of people talk about data and digital twins without having a view of how they’re going to make that useful to the customer and how they’re going to monetise it. Without that, you’re just gathering data and paying for data for data’s sake.
Without having that clear objective, businesses find themselves with complicated software stacks containing products from lots of different vendors. That’s where potential security risks can originate from.
We’ve eliminated that risk by bringing everything in-house, simplifying the software and keeping everything tight and secure. In time, there will be the Lontra OS that sits on each of our IoT-connected units and we’re looking at a GSM cellular-based APN, so very robust mobile security.
For easier maintenance and uptime, an AI algorithm on the machine learns how it operates and detects if something unusual is happening long before it becomes obvious
Will services become so important to Lontra that it ceases being a manufacturer?
Services will become incredibly important and valuable to our operation. Yet, there is a natural synergy between digital services and physical products. Hardware drives software development and vice versa.
The equivalent would be a consumer smart device such as a phone, tablet or watch. The hardware is really just a portal to sell services. We’re following a similar model but in manufacturing, at least initially.
Services also open the possibility of new selling models. ‘Guaranteed uptime’, for example, is common in the power industry but hasn’t reached the compressor industry yet. With a better product and logistics, underpinned by end-to-end monitoring, that type of subscription model becomes much easier to deliver because you know exactly how your machines are performing, that performance can be optimised, you can see issues ahead of time, and you know where all your spares and machines are.
Importantly, it’s not about how often you service, it’s whether you actually need a service now or not. The ‘service required’ warning light on your car dashboard tells you when it’s time to perform some maintenance, usually an oil and filter change. We are taking that same principle of usage-based servicing into the industrial world.
This is such an exciting time and area. I think a lot of people get confused or blinded by the buzzwords and, simply, this is a way of giving customers genuine benefit while also bringing global jobs back to the UK. Which in these times is incredibly valuable.
More information lontra.co.uk
*All images courtesy of Lontra