Corporate collaboration

ABB has faith in future product developers

When future product developers solve challenges provided by companies, bold ideas and even crazy experiments can lead to genuinely new approaches. The collaboration between ABB and Aalto Design Factory bears fruit and brings genuine out-of-the-box thinking to ABB's product development.
Kuva Aallon pdp-gaalasta
PDP courses have been organised since 1997, and between then and now, 277 prototypes have been created. Photo: Aino Huovio.

Colliding thoughts, open-minded brainstorming, bold experimentation and fast prototyping - These are some of the elements that make up the PDP (Product Development Project) course held at Aalto Design Factory. Technology giant ABB, one of Aalto University's strategic partners, has participated in the course since 2009.

'PDP is an excellent way to conduct research and get results quickly, with which I am extremely satisfied. The results achieved in previous projects are still being used and further processed by our product development staff,' says Antti Matilainen, R&D Manager from ABB Marine.

For ABB, the PDP course is an opportunity to explore interesting projects that would otherwise never see the light of day. If projects are never given a chance, you will never know whether it would have succeeded or not. Even major breakthroughs have to start somewhere. 

'In a funny way, you could say that the greatest advantage of the course is that students aren’t yet aware of any limitations to project solutions. They have a huge number of fresh ideas, and blinkers do not confine their vision. Students are not familiar with the "we've already tried everything, and it's not going to work" attitude,' says Kalevi Ekman, the professor responsible for the course and Director of Aalto Design Factory.

PDP courses have been organised since 1997, and between then and now, 277 prototypes have been created. There is always a risk of failure in product development, but most of the projects have at least had satisfying results. However, sometimes students hit the bullseye, and the outcome is a finished product or an otherwise almost sensational result. Examples of these success stories include a fire investigation simulator selected as the project of the year in Finland, a wireless charging system developed for Powerkiss and a weather station reader developed for Vaisala.

The results of the PDP course projects will normally be presented at the Product Design Gala in May, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, the spring 2020 gala has been postponed to September.

Antti Matilainen_ABB
Antti Matilainen, R&D Manager from ABB Marine.

Exact specifications not necessary

The teams include students from all six Aalto schools and in recent years, students from Design Factory partner universities have also participated in the course.

'The best ideas are born when people from different backgrounds and cultures come together and the more versatile the group, the better. Versatility creates genuine out-of-the-box thinking’, Matilainen says.

For companies, participating in the course costs €15 000, of which the student team receives €10 000. The company meets its team throughout the academic year and helps the them in decision-making.

'The idea is that the company does not need to provide exact specifications or know exactly what kind of a solution they want. Students use a lot of time and energy, trying to get to the core of the problem and finding a solution. When everything goes smoothly, the teams are unstoppable’, Ekman says.

During the course, students in the final stage of their studies get to apply the skills they have learnt at university. The course also serves as a recruitment channel for bringing together students and experts from relevant working life.

'We collaborate with many educational institutions, but the Aalto PDP course is definitely the best because of its versatility’, Matilainen says.

Kalevi Ekman_May 2020. Kuva: George Atanassov
Kalevi Ekman, the professor responsible for the course and Director of Aalto Design Factory. Photo: George Atanassov

Alarm situations on the bridge

'Ship control systems still include some very old-fashioned solutions but it has been really enjoyable to see future product developers looking for modern ways to steer ships’, Matilainen says.

The current PDP course project is related to bridge control, with the focus being on alarm situations during which complex systems bombard users with different stimuli.

'During the project, the students have interviewed staff and visited ships to get an idea of the environment. In the prototype building stage, ideas have been tested with master mariner students from XAMK’, Ekman says.

In previous courses, projects developed for ABB Marine have included a propulsion device that mimics aquatic animals, a rescue outfit for getting an employee out of an azimuth thruster and a control panel for an azimuth thruster system. Teams have also worked on making it possible to provide remote guidance and on improving mobile connectivity deep inside ships.

As a global company, ABB is familiar with responding to the needs of customers from different cultures.

'It has been enlightening to observe the student teams and see how people from different cultures think in different ways. The diversity of the teams is what makes them interesting’, Matilainen says.

Inspiration and fast prototyping

In addition to actively participating in the PDP course, ABB has long been an annual member of Aalto Design Factory. Member companies can utilise the Design Factory's prototype expertise in their product development and organise internal events at Design Factory premises.

'This is the most inspiring environment for workshops that you could imagine, Matilainen exclaims.

The Azipod azimuth thruster developed by ABB Marine improves the fuel economy, energy efficiency and manoeuvrability of numerous cruisers, icebreakers, tankers and other vessels worldwide. A mock-up of the smaller Azipod's steering module was built at Aalto Design Factory using wood and plywood.

'Thanks to the real-size model, we could test how well an engineer and his tools would fit in the tight space. When you have a real-size model in addition to the computer model, it's easier to show the customer that specific maintenance operations can be performed without the ship being dry-docked’, Matilainen points out.

Bridge consoles have also been built at Aalto Design Factory for usability testing purposes. Currently, ABB Marine is developing a new type of ship control lever, and several different 3D models have already been printed at Aalto Design Factory.

'Mock-ups are a quick and affordable way to find errors at an early stage. Fast prototyping makes product development more efficient’, Matilainen says.

Several companies have joined Aalto Design Factory's annual membership programme. 'Our facilities provide a tried and tested environment for product development, and we can also offer a skilled team for building prototypes’, Ekman says.

Text: Marjukka Puolakka

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