First published on The Straits Times on 26 January 2023.
Companies can improve their reputation and competitiveness by embracing sustainability, says LexBuild founder and group CEO Charles Tan (right).
Photo credit: SPH Media Limited
A locally designed electric bus prototype created such an intense buzz when it was unveiled that its builders became worried.
Why were competitors at last November’s Singapore International Transport Congress and Exhibition snapping so many pictures of it?
“They were looking so closely at every single area of our bus that we finally asked them what their interest was about,” says LexBuild director Max Kong, 36, laughing.
“They just replied that our bus is very interesting.”
LexBuild is a home-grown company founded in 2000 by Singaporean Charles Tan, 51, as a bus and coach body builder. Today, the company offers a range of engineering services and solutions across buses, trains and special-purpose vehicles.
Its prototype, called the LexSwitch electric vehicle (EV) bus, is big on innovation. Unlike other electric buses where the batteries are concentrated in one area, the prototype stores its batteries across its roof, undercarriage and rear compartment.
The balanced weight distribution reduces uneven wear and tear on the vehicle’s components, including its tires, brakes and suspension system.
It also breaks new ground in other ways: It uses light and durable honeycomb composite materials instead of conventional plywood for its floorboard, and ultralight aerogel instead of foam for insulation. This decreases its weight and energy consumption, and maintenance costs and needs.
Such innovations led to inquiries from bus operators in many parts of the world, including China, the United States, United Kingdom, the Philippines and Indonesia.
“We’re looking at the different markets and deciding how to move forward,” shares Mr Tan. In Singapore alone, the Land Transport Authority has pledged that half of the public bus fleet will be electric by 2030.
“You can improve your reputation and competitiveness by embracing sustainability,” says Mr Tan.
He adds that the interest in the prototype shows that local firms can boost their business and expand overseas by developing green products and services.
And the electric bus prototype has shown that there is potential for greater growth and co-innovation.
To accommodate the batteries’ unusual distribution and other features, LexBuild worked with a variety of partners to design a brand-new chassis – the frame of a bus – and other systems and technologies. Each of these innovations could be a new product line in future, says Mr Tan.
LexBuild took about 24 months and nearly $2 million to create its new electric bus prototype from scratch.
Photo credit: SPH Media Limited
“We could offer our bus’s aluminium structural body kit as a more productive and eco-friendly solution for bus body building. After we provided our battery supplier with the specifications we needed for our bus’s batteries, they also invented a slim battery (system) that is the first of its kind.”
Even with the prototype’s positive reception so far, LexBuild is not resting on its laurels. With more transport companies moving into the EV space, it is studying how to cut its bus’s cost and price without compromising on quality, and adapt it for different markets to compete more effectively internationally.
Enterprise Singapore (EnterpriseSG) has tapped its global network of offices to introduce LexBuild to potential customers and suppliers around the world. Mr Tan explains: “We don’t have to build our buses in one particular place. If we can find the right suppliers and build the vehicles closer to their intended markets, we can save on transport costs.”
Modifying the bus to meet local needs is crucial. In Indonesia, bus platforms are higher than in Singapore, so its low floor may not be suitable, explains Mr Tan. Meanwhile, buses in the US must be able to cope with extreme winters and icy roads. “With EnterpriseSG’s connections, we’ve shortened the time and effort needed for detailed market research.”
LexBuild’s innovation journey continues. It plans to broaden the range of LexSwitch EV models to include other options like mini buses and double-decker buses. It also aims to produce its own proprietary vehicle control unit, so it can have more flexibility in adopting future smart and autonomous vehicle technologies.
Even if the LexSwitch EV buses are still more expensive than other electric buses when they make it to the market, Mr Tan says, their innovations and lower lifetime maintenance cost may give them an edge.
By the numbers
Local bus builder LexBuild took about 24 months and nearly $2 million to create its new electric bus prototype from scratch
LexBuild started selling buses that are powered by compressed natural gas, which is more eco-friendly than traditional diesel
By 2030, half of Singapore's public bus fleet will be electric buses, announced the Land Transport Authority last year
Meanwhile, LexBuild is revamping its marketing and branding to align with its renewed focus on sustainability. It began the process in April last year, hired a brand consultant with assistance from the Enterprise Development Grant, and is on track to unveil a new website, logo and brand colours in March.
Mr Tan adds: “If you think about sustainability, you can attract more eco-conscious customers and employees as a greener firm. But it’s about more than that too.
“In our line of business, EVs can reduce noise and other pollution, increasing people’s quality of life. Sustainability is also about improving society’s health and well-being, and contributing to a better world for future generations."
From adversity to opportunity, electric dreams to reality
LexBuild’s prototype came about partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to a sharp drop in local demand for private buses.
The pandemic prompted the company to accelerate its long-held ambition to design its own electric bus from scratch.
“We had worked on so many buses from so many different companies by then, and knew that we could come up with a better design,” explains Mr Tan, LexBuild’s group chief executive officer.
The company had, over the years, added engineering services, customisation projects, special-purpose vehicles such as mobile eye clinics and mammogram X-ray buses, to its portfolio.
But sustainability was always an early focus. In 2008, it partnered with ST Engineering and other firms to create Singapore’s first diesel-hybrid electric bus, but the offering was eventually shelved due to a lack of interest from bus operators.
Mr Tan says: “It was not popular commercially, but we knew even then that things would be different someday due to concerns about climate change.”
Undeterred, LexBuild started selling buses that use more eco-friendly compressed natural gas instead of diesel for fuel in 2012, and adapted other bus designs with more sustainable technologies to form its own brand of Hola buses in 2016.
LexBuild is building up a core local team with specialised EV knowledge and skills to differentiate themselves from competitors.
Photo credit: SPH Media Limited
LexBuild expanded and upskilled its staff in its journey to create the electric bus prototype, which took two years from the end of 2019. It beefed up its engineering team with assistance from EnterpriseSG’s Enterprise Development Grant (EDG) and Global Ready Talent Programme.
The EDG enables Singapore firms to grow and transform by supporting projects to upgrade their business, innovate or venture overseas. The talent programme helps them to offer internships and other work opportunities to attract students and fresh graduates.
“We hired more fresh graduates, sent several managers for EV technician courses locally, and stationed our new engineers at our original equipment manufacturer’s factory in China for six to nine months to learn from their seniors,” Mr Tan says. The company has over 80 employees.
“The EV field is highly specialised and requires unique expertise. With these and other moves, we are building up a core local team with the knowledge and skills to develop more quality products, diagnose EVs’ problems and maintain the vehicles. This will help us to differentiate ourselves from our competitors.”
This is the second of a three-part series in partnership with Enterprise Singapore that explores how local firms are growing their business by embracing sustainability and seizing emerging opportunities. Find out more here.