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Pioneering the launch of 3G and 4G equipment manufacturing in India, Nokia Networks, has emerged as one of the strongest mobile infrastructure providers |  By Indira Rao | 

The first question that my office asked me when I wanted to cover the Nokia Networks facility was, “What is there to cover when they have shut their manufacturing operations?” While that is true, what Nokia suspended was its handset manufacturing operations but is still going strong in its mobile infrastructure business.

This business of wired and wireless infrastructure was first formed by Nokia and Siemens in 2006 but in 2013 the company bought back Siemens’ share and continued with its mobile networks business. Today, India remains a key market for Nokia Networks. India is the only country outside of Finland where every aspect of the company’s operations are present.

Infact, India is also the largest country in terms of employee base for Nokia globally. Seconding Sandeep Girotra, VP and head, India, Nokia Networks averred, “We directly employ 11,000 employees across our operations. Our Chennai plant manufactures 2G, 3G and 4G gear and exports a significant chunk to the rest of world. Our Bangalore R&D centre feeds into the company’s global R&D machine. Finally, the global delivery centres in Noida and Chennai provide services to customers in India and across 86 countries and manage more than 200 million subscribers.”

Spread over a massive 34.75 acres the Nokia Networks facility at Chennai has the capability to manufacture the complete gamut of telecom products. It manufactures and ships 2G, 3G, LTE and core networks for domestic and global markets with close to 50% of the finished radio base station products being exported.

“We have the largest facility by all means and are the only ones to export half of our production. Nobody does that much. We are definitely far ahead than anybody else in the market,” affirmed Satendra Singh, head, manufacturing operations, India, Nokia Networks.

One of the main ingredients to stand tall amongst competition is investment in technology. And Nokia did just that right from 2008, when it started its production at the facility. Talking about the kind of technology used in the factory, Singh said, “In terms of manufacturing equipment, we have surface mount (SMT), which is a self sufficient line. Between the five SMT lines we can actually mount about 11.8 million components per day. That’s the actual capacity and we plug and play depending on our volume, needs and the combination of products we run on the line. They are product agnostic and we can run any technology on that line.”

The company makes 2G, 3G, and 4G and multi-radio on these lines. Multi radio is an equipment that is not only future ready but also can be used in present times. With the telecom infrastructure, different markets are at different stages of evolution. India till today has largely been a 2G market whereas the Japanese market is a mature 4G one and the Americas are transitioning from 3G to 4G. Therefore, the primary challenge for Nokia’s customers would be to know how many sites they should have for 2G, 3G or for that matter 4G.

“Earlier every time the market used to mature, customers would change the base station or change the equipment. We have come up with a fantastic technology that does away with this process,” stated Singh. He further added, “The equipment we now make would be ready for 4G but today it will run on 2G. So as and when the customers see the market changing they need not invest again in a base station but only upgrade their software.”

Filter manufacturing is another area where different customisations for different frequencies are done depending on the kind of SKUs. “This is the second set of equipment we have wherein we have tuning and test stations. So that is where we test our boards, which are manufactured in SMT and then we integrate them and test them on multiple stages visually and electrically to make it fantastic.” The third set of equipment is an assembly line where they assemble all these boards, filters into the final product.

Since, I looked as dumb as a post when Singh mentioned about frequencies, he tried explaining the concept in simple terms. “Just like you have multiple radio frequencies similarly there are frequencies for telecom too. Every country has allocated particular frequencies through which you can have mobile tele communication.

India, for example, pretty much runs 2G on 900 MHz, 3G on 2100 and 1800 MHz.” “Contrary to popular perception the frequency does not depend on the technology,” Singh pointed out. “This means if 2G runs on 900 MHz it is possible to also run 4G on the same frequency. It’s just because 900 is exhausted, that people are looking at higher frequencies for 4G. You can have 4G on 1800 and 3G on 1800 as well and we can make products around that.”

Similarly, around the world too there are multiple frequencies available like 700, 850, 880, 1900, 2600 MHz. So, when one talks of filter manufacturing the filter is the part of the equipment which decides the frequency at which the network  operates. Thus, every frequency spectrum will have its own filter and at Nokia, the tuning of each filter is done with highly sophisticated radio equipment. At the same time it also requires significant high level of operator skills. “This requires extreme precision and our people who work on this line are exceptionally trained to perform this task,” asserted Singh.

Nokia’s process quality initiatives are largely systems driven so there are checks and balances built in this system. There are defined methodologies formed to test the products at different stages. “We have a very exhaustive optical inspection which basically replaces the human eye and checks for the presence or absence or correctness of the part on the board,” Singh explained.

Each board has 10,000 components and hence this operation is very critical. The shopfloor also has an In Circuit Testing (ICT) machine that is a much sophisticated version of a multi meter. This checks if the component is at the right place or not. There are various other instruments that aid the testing process. What is interesting is that each of the components that go onto each board is traceable. Agreeing, Singh added, “I can tell when the product came in, analyse when and where it was built, who all were responsible in building it and at what time. Such high levels of traceability help us to keep the floor in control.” Through this facility in Chennai, Nokia caters to domestic and global customers too. Hence, they decided to adapt digital manufacturing quite early on. Digital manufacturing for us starts right from the time we take the order in. “Being a global company we have operations in 120 countries and have manufacturing facilities in just about four countries including India.

All our facilities are global in nature. So we have to have a system, wherein we have to bring in the demand efficiently into the factories with the right set of information. To do this we have quite an extensive deployment of ERP,” said Singh. Many of their work instructions are digital wherein a person can check exactly what he needs to do. More importantly their test systems are all computerised and fool roof. Software too is automatically updated if and when there is a global roll out. As mentioned above since everything is traceable here they know exactly how many yields have been manufactured in a day.

“Interestingly these two practices of yield monitoring and inspection originated at the Chennai facility and is now followed in all our facilities globally,” shared Singh. India is today at the cusp of a massive mobile broadband revolution, which while opening up new opportunities for telecom operators also brings challenges in their increasingly complex network infrastructure.

This calls for a transformation in network management strategies and approach, which is what Nokia excels in. “We will continue to expand our bouquet of offerings in 3G, LTE, small cells, managed services and other services relevant in the country that will help telecom operators capitalise on mobile broadband growth. India has been a key business driver for Nokia Network’s global growth in Q314 and we see that data momentum continues to be strong among Indian mobile operators and there is increasingly easing regulatory head winds. LTE, which is also picking up steam, is expected to assume a bigger role as a data growth driver, going forward,” said Girotra on a concluding note.

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