After the awards: Synthotech Ltd interview with Simon Langdale

After the awards: Synthotech Ltd interview with Simon Langdale

Synthotech won the UK Energy Innovation Award for Best Innovation Contributing to Customer Quality & Reliability of Gas Supply in 2017. Synthotech’s close collaboration with the innovation team at its gas distribution customer, Northern Gas Networks, led to the creation of an innovative solution that met a real business need.

It was Northern Gas Networks which originally engaged with Synthotech when the commercial problem that inspired the winning innovation was reviewed. 

Northern Gas Networks transports gas to 2.7 million homes and businesses across the North East, Northern Cumbria and much of Yorkshire. It also provides the region’s rapid response service when a smell of gas is reported. 

Jarred Knott, Innovation & Regulation Support at Northern Gas Networks, explains:

"We wanted to solve the problem of water ingress into services that feed customers’ gas supplies. It’s a problem that affects all gas network operators.

Where water ingress was detected, the network operators used to have to excavate the pipe. This was not only expensive and time consuming for Northern Gas Networks, it also had a negative impact on the customer, especially if engineers were forced to dig up well-established gardens to access the affected services." 

An Innovative Solution

Synthotech partnered with the innovation team at Northern Gas Networks for more than a year before developing the solution. Funding from Northern Gas Networks via the Network Innovation Allowance (NIA) secured its development.

Now, instead of invasive excavations, first call operatives responding to a problem can use Synthotech’s water extraction technology. A hollow inspection tube with integrated camera and pump enables the engineer to inspect the pipe and extract the water from the supply pipe in a single operation.

“Rather than call out additional staff resources and the trailer-transported pumps that were required previously, the engineer is able to inspect and solve the problem in a single, non-disruptive visit,” explains Simon Langdale, Engineering Manager at Synthotech.

Furthermore, the Synthotech water extraction tool recirculates the gas in the pipe, so water can be removed without gas being vented. It is also far more portable than the bowser that would otherwise be used and does not require a trailer to transport.

Entering the Award

“It was Northern Gas Networks who suggested we enter the award,” continues Simon. “The solution addresses a common problem. It is lighter and easier to use. And it can deal with water ingress on a first visit. This means there is big cost saving potential.”

Both companies believed that the UK Energy Innovation Awards would be an ideal platform to highlight the commercial benefits of the innovation.

“Since winning, the solution has been deployed network wide by Northern Gas Networks,” says Simon. 

It is now a fully-fledged product and we’ve enjoyed great success commercialising it. We have had uptake from other networks.

What Next?

Richard Hynes-Cooper, Head of Innovation at Northern Gas Networks, agrees that the UK Energy Innovation Awards has been a great showcase for the work his team is doing to reduce the negative impact of engineering and maintenance work for the end consumer.

“We track the benefits that these innovation solutions deliver each time they are used across our whole portfolio, in this case where the Synthotech-developed tool is used. We track the time saving, cost saving, and reduction of impact for the customer across the network. It is now a proven bit of technology with net benefits and we can prove its worth,” says Richard. 

“It’s been used hundreds of times over the last eighteen months and it is now our go-to operation instead of digging a hole and revolutionises how we tackle this problem for both customers and NGN engineers. We can demonstrate that the half-day of training required to operate it pays off. The award win – together with this qualitative and quantitative evidence – has helped us to embed the technology’s use culturally.”

Simon’s tips for would-be innovators

The success of this project was based on the strong stakeholder buy-in in the beginning. The team at Northern Gas Networks were very open and easy to work with and I think that was crucial to our success. I think for any innovation to have operational success it has to be tailored to end-user needs.

Simon’s tips for would-be award entrants

Winning the awards has given us a great deal of publicity. It’s been a good way to disseminate and share knowledge about the product and ensure it will be used. This will help to ensure the consumer gets maximum benefit.

Richard’s tips for would-be innovators

Be transparent about your issues, proposals and what the problem is that you are trying to solve. Be clear about the benefits you are seeking and who your target market is. 

Richard’s tips for would-be award entrants

Gaining recognition externally has been good for Synthotech, and it has been good for us. Through the awards, we have been able to demonstrate that we are engaging with SMEs and listening to the problems of stakeholder groups. It is a platform to showcase our efforts and promote the wider dissemination of the solution. And it is nice to be celebrated by the industry and for our engineers to be recognised for doing the right thing.

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