The collective strong competence in energy technology and the moderate number of companies in the region have made this innovation environment particularly open and given it an excellent network basis. The Vaasa region is living proof of the fact that when research cooperation works well, the results are often success stories right from the start.
The world is changing. The continental sheets of finance are moving, and the effects are shaking everybody’s success. Vaasa region is working on changing this. The local investments made in the collaboration between companies and universities are at an all-time high. The region’s largest and oldest drivers of exports, ABB and Wärtsilä, are among the top five companies in Finland in terms of investments in R&D. Both of these giants know that innovation and forward-looking product development are crucial for long-term success in particular. Fruitful R&D also feeds success in exports – and the better the export rates, the faster the economy will recover. In short, R&D may prove to be one of the super heroes that rescues the current dire economy.
“It’s vital to aim R&D towards exports. Because the product development culture in the Vaasa region is so strong, we can look to the future with more faith,” says Jari Kuusisto, Vice Rector of the University of Vaasa.
“Even very small changes in products may have two doctoral theses behind them.”
The energy industry in Vaasa has a long history, which has resulted in both diverse commercial activities and research competence in the region. Over the decades, the close local R&D collaboration has become very efficient. In fact, research and the amount of companies’ know-how have fed each other over the years. ABB Finland’s CTO Heikki Uusitalo describes their connection as the chicken-and-egg effect: research creates more competence. And great competence enables even deeper research.
“The growth of know-how in the region benefits the whole area, and R&D investments in industry, for example, always serve, at least indirectly, all other companies in the field too.”
Competition, however, is global and only the best experts are good enough. ABB and Wärtsilä cooperate with all the leading universities in the world and especially where technology know-how is high.
“Vaasa is faring extremely well in this competition. Wärtsilä’s main product development unit is here, because competence in the energy industry is concentrated in this region. The most important innovations of all time are our medium-speed engines, which determine the company’s operations today to a large extent. Local research know-how is high in the areas that are important to us, so we use it a great deal and will use it even more in the future,” says Ilari Kallio, Vice President of Wärtsilä R&D Marine Solutions. ABB, on the other hand, utilises the research competence in Vaasa especially for its smart grids and decentralised power generation.
ABB and Wärtsilä are involved in a supportive role in the establishment of a professorship at the University of Vaasa’s Faculty of Technology, which specialises in electrical engineering and energy technology, and particularly smart, flexible electrical energy systems. This endowed professorship will allow the University of Vaasa to offer better support than ever to companies in the energy sector concerning the challenges of energy research.
The R&D cooperation aims at finding good, new product development themes. What is the right direction for a product and what is not, and what will be needed in the future? The main purpose of R&D is to ensure continued competitiveness.
“Even very small changes in products may have two doctoral theses behind them that have cost your company a couple of hundred thousand euros. But thanks to them, you will stand out from the competition,” Uusitalo points out.
There are many levels for research cooperation between companies and universities. This cooperation may involve trainees and people working on master’s theses, doctoral theses, research projects and large international research programmes. All the different levels have a huge effect on Wärtsilä, for example, and therefore it makes sense for it to invest in them.
“We spend MEUR 140 a year on our product development investments worldwide, which is 3% of our turnover,” says Kallio.
The research and product development culture moves with the times. In future, networking will play an increasingly important role. The most successful companies already operate in open innovation environments where players outside the companies also participate in the innovation of products and processes. The model often used in Finland is public-private partnership (PPP), in which the development work is promoted by various public operators, as well as companies. Traditionally, product development has often been something that customers are involved in. This mode of operation will inevitably meet some challenges, especially in the field of technology.
“Product development in companies hardly ever happens behind closed doors.”
“Technology is becoming more and more intelligent and the industrial internet is growing. Devices give instructions directly, anticipate and advise. When a customer’s world as a user changes, their technical competence will also change. This in turn will make it more challenging to take a stand on development,” Uusitalo predicts.
Finland is highly rated in international comparisons on the cooperation between companies and universities, and R&D activities in Vaasa are among the most ambitious in Finland. In just a few years, the region’s R&D investments have tripled and the number of product development staff has doubled. Openness and well-functioning networks are generally considered the key to the success of R&D collaboration in the Vaasa region. Product development in companies hardly ever happens behind closed doors; instead, experts from different quarters are involved. Uusitalo believes that strong networking within the region is easier when there are companies with complimentary and advanced competences. It makes it easier for everyone, small and medium-sized companies included, to benefit.
Public funding is important and often used in research projects. However, in the Vaasa region a major share of R&D&I funding comes from the private sector. Sometimes people complain about this, but in the end a greater proportion of public funding makes for less beneficial results. Jari Kuusisto from the University of Vaasa stresses that, on a larger scale, private R&D investments are extremely important.
“It’s a sign that we have a healthy, dynamic growth-oriented business sector in the Vaasa region. The ratio of funding here is very healthy. It has the potential to bring more money back, and faster too.”
Smart grid sensation
Thanks to the R&D platform, the questions about future energy distribution will be answered
Who would have thought that smart grid history is being made right now in the idyllic countryside of Vaasa, in the village of Sundom? The Sundom Smart Grid has four intelligently automated secondary substations that gauge the quality, voltage and current of electricity in the electrical network used by consumers. Of course, studying electrical transit in larger smart grids than this all over the world is not a new idea. What is unique to this project, however, is the lightning-quick fibre-distributed data interface running underground. It transfers information from the electrical network to the research servers 24/7.
“Previously the power network company didn’t have such an accurate view on what was happening in the network. Now they can be provided with continuous data in real time. The Sundom Smart Grid is our live laboratory,” says Tuomas Vanhanen, Area Sales Manager at ABB.
The Sundom Smart Grid not only locates possible faults at record speed but, by simulating the data from it, solutions can also be found for future energy distribution. For the first time it’s possible to obtain such an amount of information on how best to handle the distribution and transmission of electricity when decentralised power generation becomes more common and when the regulatory requirements on the continuity of supply become tougher.
“Tougher requirements would mean cabling investments of billions for power network companies, but the Sundom Smart Grid can help us find more cost-effective methods through a combination of intelligent underground cabling and automation,” Vanhanen says.
The tools used are the live data obtained from the electrical network and various simulation models.
“The best part is that the research results from the smart grid can be duplicated and simulated from the little village of Sundom to other environments of various kinds and sizes. In other words, the research results can be utilised globally,” Vanhanen says.
The network also includes the local wind power plant and the solar power panels on the roofs of the village school and day-care centre. They provide concrete information on what happens when decentralised and renewable power generation is connected to the network on this scale – or on a simulated larger scale.
The Sundom Smart Grid is the concrete result of the Vaasa region’s open innovation environment. It’s a joint research and development project of many partners, which received a national award already at its planning stage. ABB, the University of Vaasa, Anvia, Vaasan Sähköverkko, Vaasan Sähkö and Technology Centre Merinova have pooled their top know-how, which has proved to produce top results. According to Vanhanen, the team consists of the best experts in the world.
“Anvia’s newest ICT solutions combined with ABB’s smart grid components are in themselves a unique infrastructure. The top researchers at the University of Vaasa can use the information from the research platform to show the way for future energy distribution.”
New energy laboratory takes R&D to a new level
VEBIC is epic: it provides a globally significant research platform
The energy research activities in Vaasa are about to take an international leap. A new research and product development laboratory is going to be built on the university campus. In it, the University of Vaasa, the largest user of the facilities, will establish the Vaasa Energy Business Innovation Center (VEBIC), which will meet the region’s growing requirements for education and research in the energy industry. The new energy laboratory is the first step on the route towards a large Science Park for the energy technology field in Vaasa.
VEBIC will have three engine laboratories, one for high speed engines and two for large medium speed engines. There will also be laboratories for fuels and geoenergy. Research in it will focus, for example, on renewable fuels, flexible energy production, developing the control systems of engines and power plants and reducing the waste energy and emissions of energy production.
“The main targets of the research will be to improve engine combustion, reduce emissions, develop the electrical and automation systems of gas and diesel power plants and utilise waste energy flows efficiently,” says Janne Suomela, VEBIC’s Project Manager.
Wärtsilä will provide the internal-combustion engine laboratories with two medium-speed diesel engines. ABB will participate in the design and procurement work for various electrical systems. Numerous other companies also support the project and are expected to get involved in order to benefit from the shared competence.
VEBIC will be implemented in cooperation with the region’s energy industry operators. In addition to the university, there are many companies and public organisations involved. The whole energy laboratory will make the Vaasa region an even more powerful forerunner of renewable energy sources and smart and flexible energy production.
“This will be a unique research environment in Europe, maybe even the world. We will now be able to conduct research on energy technologies and various fuels in an extremely diverse way,” Suomela says.
The region’s companies are also excited about the joint opportunities for R&D growth.
“The research platform for the energy industry is developing at a great rate now. In future, the only limitation to what is possible will be the imagination. Knowledge brings certainty, and in the future we can go anywhere we want in the world,” says Heikki Uusitalo, CTO at ABB Finland.
Read more about VEBIC and its EnergyLab facilities.
Wärtsilä 31 – record-breaking developments
Wärtsilä 31 is the most efficient four-stroke diesel engine in the world. The result of five years’ product development, it was designed in Vaasa from start to finish and will also be manufactured there.
The engine made it to the Guinness World Records: it has the world’s highest operating efficiency with a remarkably low fuel consumption of diesel (165 g/kWh).
“This is proof of the top know-how and engineering skills prevalent in the Vaasa region. The importance of our university collaboration over the years is now demonstrated in this very real result,” says Ilari Kallio, Vice President of R&D at Wärtsilä.
The engine can be run using different fuels and its energy efficiency can save more than three million euros in a vessel’s fuel costs over five years.
“In a globally competitive market, we have been able to design a product that challenges all others.”
Read more about Wärtsilä31.