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Inspiring Stories
30 Jan 2020 Updated 12 Feb 2020

Technolite:

On a roll with new smart pole

Local company's intelligent lamp pole hides a range of high-tech devices.

First published on The Straits Times on 30 January 2020.

Standing like sentinels over Sentosa’s Palawan Beach are two lamp poles that shine a light to a future of smart and safer cities.

They are twice the size of the ones found throughout Singapore, and have hidden compartments to house Internet of Things (IoT) devices and cables.

More than a decade in the making, the idea for these next-generation lamp poles arose from a need for quicker responses to traffic or emergency situations.

When local lighting company Technolite started supplying lamp poles to Orchard Road in 2006, they began to receive requests from government agencies to install additional surveillance equipment to the structures.

“It was a big challenge because the poles are not designed for that,” said Mr Michael Chia, 55, managing director of Technolite.

“We had to think about how the structural design of the pole could support the weight of the devices and wind load, and optimise the space within the constraints of the pole dimensions,” added Mr Lim Yeow Chong, 55, senior engineer at Technolite.

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I-Core in Palawan Beach, Sentosa.
Photo credit: TECHNOLITE

Determined to come up with a solution, the 38-employee company invested more than a million dollars developing a lamp pole that would be able to house IoT devices safely and neatly.

The solution? A lamp pole with an internal beam surrounded by hollow compartments. The beam would act as the pole’s main support structure. The bottom compartments would be reserved for routers, with cladding that could be easily removed and replaced, while the upper compartments, for sensors and cameras, would have sliding panels.

This design would allow organisations such as government agencies to have their own private and dedicated compartments, and prevent illegal access to and tampering of their devices.

From drawing board to reality

Technolite was convinced that it had a scalable and sustainable product on its hands. The smart pole, known as I-Core, would be made with recyclable aluminium instead of galvanised steel, typically used one-off in traditional lamp posts. But it needed help to build and test its prototype.

“It was very difficult because we are a small company, and most people want something that is already proven,” said Mr Chia.

The company reached out to enterprise development agency Enterprise Singapore, which supported it in building the smart lamp post prototype and connected it with Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) to carry out a six-month pilot trial to install two poles in Palawan Beach from the middle of last year.

The trial proved successful, with the prototype collecting data such as light intensity, noise levels and visitor footfall. Public agencies can now harness the pole for street lighting, communication and connectivity, security monitoring and traffic management, among other uses.

SDC has since extended the Palawan Beach trial by three months so that Technolite can add and test digital signage for events and advertisements to the smart poles.

“The trend will be towards digital signage, and we want to be ahead of the curve,” said Mr Chia.

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Technolite managing director Michael Chia showcasing a section of the I-Core prototype.
Photo credit: ST/Ted Chen

How Technolite has powered up for global growth

Spotting opportunities

With other countries gearing up to build smart cities nationwide, Technolite knew that its smart lamp pole, I-Core, could potentially find success abroad.

It decided to license the technology to overseas players, which would enable them to localise the production and distribution of the integrated smart lamp poles and avoid obstacles such as trade barriers. The company also approached Enterprise Singapore for support with intellectual property.

In 2018, Technolite licensed its I-Core technology to Taqnia Energy and the Al Sharif Group in Saudi Arabia for the Middle East market, and plans to expand its licensing rights to the United States, Europe, Australia and India in the future.

Going global

Further innovation and internationalisation efforts are on the cards for the company. “The lighting business, like many other industries, is very challenging and competitive. You have to constantly think about what the market will desire and try new things,” said Technolite’s managing director Michael Chia.

The firm has produced a second version of its I-Core pole, which is more suitable for use in gardens. It is also working with the Housing and Development Board on a project to light underground car parks using above-ground lamp poles.

“If a company wants to expand and grow, it needs to innovate and create its own product. If you don’t have your own creation, how can you go international?” said Mr Chia.

Riding out challenges

Expanding overseas requires an understanding of different local markets.

When Technolite developed the I-Core, it picked out markets that were likely to embrace the technology and respect its intellectual property. “Innovation is challenging, but it’s only the first step. You have to get that first partner or customer who accepts your idea and is a good fit for the firm,” explained Mr Chia.

He added: “We believe the Middle East has great potential. Partnering Taqnia Energy, an investment company owned by Saudi Arabia’s government, and the Al Sharif Group, gives us a strong endorsement as we venture into the US and European markets.”

Sparking talent

Talent management has been crucial to Technolite’s growth in Singapore and abroad.

In its local office, new hires with no experience in the industry are assigned a senior employee as a mentor. Meanwhile, only people with industry experience are employed in its overseas offices as it needs expert talent that can navigate the markets.

The company also sends its design staff to exhibitions, seminars and training courses to broaden their understanding of lighting systems and technology, said Ms Rosemary Santoso, 41, a senior manager at Technolite.

Mr Chia added that the firm formed a research and development arm in its Singapore office in 2016 to widen the company’s lighting design capabilities and stay on the cutting edge of the latest global industry innovations.

Milestones

1991: Mr Michael Chia and Ms Michelle Hee, aged 54 this year, set up Technolite, a distributor of world-renowned lighting brands.

2008: Technolite expands its business as a lighting specialist by providing more services such as design support and on-site maintenance.

2012: Technolite sets up its first overseas office in China.

2017: It grows its global presence to seven overseas markets.

2018: Technolite embarks on the I-Core project to fill a market gap for smart street lighting.

2019: Technolite develops the second version of I-Core pole for gardens.