Winning Collaboration Between Vahterus and John Wijbenga

A pioneer in refrigeration, John Wijbenga has devoted his career to understanding and developing systems with ammonia. At 72, he is still an active contributor to the industry and believes that the secret of success lies in carrying out ordinary daily activities unusually well.

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Mauri Kontu, founder and CEO of Vahterus, and John Wijbenga, founder of Wijbenga B.V. Netherlands, photographed in Kalanti, Finland.

Born in the Netherlands, John Wijbenga gained knowledge of construction work and material handling early, while working in his family smithy during his school years. He studied mechanics, energy production, controls and refrigeration before he began his professional life as a project engineer in industrial refrigeration, a job where everything he had learned seemed to come together.

At that time, the main refrigerant in industrial refrigeration was ammonia, and the fundamentals for systems with ammonia became Wijbenga’s key interest. They have remained so for his entire professional life.

In 1984, Wijbenga started his company, Wijbenga Engineering, which focused on specific-application engineering. The company began as a representative in the Netherlands and Belgium of the well-known German company Th. Witt Kältemaschinenfabrik GmbH. The main products were, and are, pumps, vessels, pump stations and high-pressure float regulators.

During its first years, Wijbenga Engineering supplied a number of ice banks for the wet pad cooling of fruit and vegetables, and the application range quickly grew with products from two other companies, including innovative control valves, solenoid valves and level sensors. In late 1993, Wijbenga saw the Vahterus Plate & Shell heat exchanger in an exhibition and became instantly interested.

”I thought the product could strengthen our portfolio as an alternative for Shell & Tube heat exchangers”, Wijbenga says. ”We could use our existing knowledge of and experience with flooded systems for it, and fulfil customers’ growing demand for low-charge ammonia systems."

Wijbenga returned home and told his colleague he had seen a product that could be of interest for their market in the future. But there had been no name on the products at the exhibition, and with no internet, tracing the manufacturer was difficult. Wijbenga had heard that the heat exchanger came from a small company in the southwest of Finland, and finally, after receiving Mauri Kontu’s contact information from the Finnish Chamber of Commerce in Amsterdam, he was able to get in touch with Vahterus.

The first heat exchanger was ordered at the beginning of 1994 and in September that year Wijbenga visited Vahterus in Kalanti to discuss further cooperation between the two companies – a collaboration that has endured ever since.

A more specific purpose of the visit was to talk over the delivery time of the first size 5 heat exchanger, a unit that was supplied to a Belgium customer. It is still in operation as an evaporator to cool down propylene glycol.

Although Vahterus was a small company, Wijbenga saw its potential. ”They had an innovative product and an open mind for supporting tests. They also had short lines in decision making and a strong focus on one product type”, he recalls. Vahterus was also able to follow market demand through production extension.

It was not long before Vahterus Plate & Shell heat exchangers became very popular in refrigeration solutions in the Benelux, particularly in solutions where they were combined with separators from Th. Witt Kältemaschinenfabrik. With these solutions, Wijbenga Engineering won the Dutch innovation award Koeltrofee in 1997, just four years after their introduction.

Wijbenga believes that the secret of this success lies in doing ordinary daily activities unusually well. ”You can’t do it alone”, he points out. ”The most significant thing I’ve learned during my career is to share knowledge with others, especially with young people, and let them follow education as far as they have an interest in it”.

Sharing knowledge, discussing possibilities and testing products together has also been the backbone of the winning cooperation between Wijbenga Engineering and Vahterus, which has resulted in Wijbenga Engineering selling 10% of the produced units for refrigeration applications into the Benelux.

”Over the years Wijbenga Engineering as a company and John Wijbenga personally have had a very important role in developing the Vahterus PSHE technology and in particular, in developing and launching it for different applications in natural refrigeration systems”, says Kontu.

Along with building good customer relationships in the Benelux countries, the company has been willing to share with Vahterus their wide experience and knowhow of building refrigeration systems. Kontu considers Wijbenga’s personal involvement and advice, as well his contribution in the form of extensive hand books and very detailed instructions, invaluable.

In 2001, Wijbenga Engineering made a complete handbook to inform its customers about the dos and don’ts of Vahterus heat exchangers in refrigeration systems. It served as a base for the Vahterus Refrigeration Hand Book that was produced later.

In 2010–2011, Vahterus and Wijbenga bound the strengths of both companies together and developed the combined heat exchanger. This evaporator with integrated separator contributes to the attempt to reduce the refrigerant charge. ”During a number of practical tests in the Vahterus lab, including some negative results, we all learned a lot and found the best solution”, Wijbenga says.

Wijbenga believes Vahterus can maintain its position as a market leader in fully welded Plate & Shell heat exchanger technology through constant development. ”Over the last 25 years, you can see an increasing market for this type of heat exchanger. Of course there are, and will be, a number of other heat exchanger types. But Vahterus can play a very important role in this field, as has
been proved by the development and results of the combined heat exchanger over the last few years.”

He points out that deepening the understanding of PSHEs in detail, and getting to know their characteristics, may not only lead to building better products but even inventing new ones. Wijbenga thinks it is essential to train employees in application techniques and to share product information with customers in order to really understand their system demands. In terms of industry trends, Wijbenga considers charge reduction and natural refrigerants the best bets when building tomorrow’s solutions.

At 72, Wijbenga is still working part time in the refrigeration industry at Wijbenga Engineering and in the Vahterus R&D group. He is also active as volunteer in the church of his home village Geldermalsen, especially for technical and building issues.

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John Wijbenga, founder of Wijbenga B.V. Netherlands, photographed at Vahterus headquarters in Kalanti, Finland.