Failure is the Seed of Success in an Innovation-friendly Environment
The Vahterus R&D team comprises six people whose goal is to identify potential problems in existing heat-exchanger solutions and find ways to improve products. Successful product development requires perseverance, an understanding of product properties and a curiosity regarding new experiments.
Maintaining the competitiveness of a company necessitates continuous research and development, and Vahterus has decided to make major investments in this area. Everything boils down to developing existing heat-exchanger solutions and understanding customer processes. If you are unaware of customer needs, it is impossible to spot the features that can be improved and the ways in which this can be done.
The Vahterus R&D team is part of the company’s Customer Service department, which includes the Quality team. The department is directed by Customer Service Director Valtteri Haavisto, who is responsible for the customer interface.
The R&D team consists of six people, all of whom have a specific area of responsibility. Three of the team members are R&D engineers. Kerttu Kupiainen runs the operations of the R&D laboratory; Kalle Vähätalo is responsible for computational fluid dynamics and mechanical testing. Both also support the sales department in matters related to product sizing. Reima Viinikkala focuses on structural design. Juha Karhu and Lauri Rantasalo construct the testing equipment needed in the R&D laboratory and conduct the agreed tests.
The Director of the R&D team is Jyrki Sonninen, who has been involved in Vahterus product development since the early years of the company. He is also responsible for developing the sizing software. ‘We analyse the results we obtain from measurements and flow simulations as a team, and then apply the results to developing our software’, Sonninen says. The team meets at least once a week, and more often if necessary, but most of the time each member works independently.
Lauri Rantasalo has worked at Vahterus for two decades and has developed his skills in several different positions. He joined Vahterus after his military service through a metal industry recruitment course. At the time, he had completed a vocational degree in electric power engineering.
‘I started off welding up small holes and went on to gain experience in various positions, from operating a robot line to pressure testing, during my first ten years at Vahterus. Then I ended up in the R&D laboratory, which is still my main place of work. My duties also include on-site maintenance and repair work. Last summer, I graduated from the Mechanical and Production Engineering Degree programme of Satakunta University of Applied Sciences’, Rantasalo says.
Decisions on research projects to be conducted by the R&D team are made jointly by the R&D Director and the Customer Service Director. In very large projects, decisions are made by the executive team. Projects can be roughly divided into two categories: general research and product tailoring. The latter enables Vahterus to develop heat-exchanger solutions for specific customer needs.
‘A typical development project may include investigating how an existing product could be improved by applying a new, alternative structure’, Sonninen says. As an example, he mentions an alternative structure developed for a Combined-type flooded evaporator. The development initiative came from a customer who needed a more compact solution.
‘Once we’d decided to include the project in our agenda, we began to investigate how it could be implemented, built a test exchanger and tested it in our R&D laboratory. After the structure of the product had been decided, it was time to productise the new solutions: the parts were designed, instructions were provided for product design and the new solutions were imported into the sizing software. In total, the R&D project took a couple of months to complete’, Sonninen says.
For Vahterus, investing in R&D means close cooperation with universities and institutions of applied sciences. Kalle Vähätalo, M.Sc. (Tech.), studied energy technology and ended up working in the Vahterus R&D team through one of these collaborative projects. Vähätalo has worked at Vahterus since 2014: he began his career as a Master’s thesis worker and moved on to his current position as R&D Engineer in January 2015.
According to Vähätalo, the most challenging aspect of his work is that the problems being examined are so complex. However, this is also what makes the work interesting. To succeed in product development, you must understand the special characteristics of each sales sector and take them into account in your decisions.
‘The job requires comprehensive knowledge of heat transfer and flow technology, as well as an understanding of the customer’s processes. I also need to master the use of flow simulation software’, Vähätalo says.
The day-to-day work of the R&D team is more interesting and the problems more wide-ranging and complex than one might think. An end result that seems simple may require an immense amount of hard background work. Vahterus also receives praise for its innovation-friendly atmosphere.
‘We’re pretty bold in testing new ideas. Sometimes, we even conduct experiments we know or believe will fail. The purpose of these experiments is to provide us with more information that may prevent us from making a mistake in the future or give us something to spark a significant new project’, Rantasalo says.
The R&D team believes in the unique nature of Vahterus products and that the company’s main competitive advantage stems from its history. Since Vahterus developed its welded Plate & Shell Heat Exchanger from scratch before introducing it to the market, the company has experienced the entire R&D cycle with all its errors and insights. This is a great starting point for creating new products and developing product improvements.
‘As far as we know, we’re still the only manufacturer that’s seriously developing, measuring and researching Plate & Shell heat exchangers’, Sonninen concludes.