Doctoral level expertise is needed as ABB is engineering the energy transition

Joint doctoral research projects between Aalto University and ABB are training scientists to develop the cutting-edge products needed in the future. ABB employs a large number of PhDs, an increasing number of whom have an international background.
Eemeli Mölsä being promoted as doctor
Eemeli Mölsä, D.Sc.(Tech.), did his doctoral thesis in Professor Marko Hinkkanen's research group in an ABB-funded project and was employed by ABB after completing his thesis. Photo by Aalto University/Mika Levälampi.

Technology giant ABB is a global market leader in the manufacture of frequency converters, and the group's leading frequency converter product development unit is located at its Helsinki factory. 'Our Helsinki unit, together with the universities in the Helsinki metropolitan area, form one of the world's largest power electronics clusters in terms of expertise,' says Matti Kauhanen, VP, Technology Manager of ABB Drives. 

'To keep up with international competition, we need top experts in Finland. Our research cooperation with Aalto University plays a key role in this, providing a way to train PhDs in strategically important areas of expertise for our business.' 

Frequency converters are used to control electric motors. The market is huge because many industries and devices rely on motors. The green transition will further electrify the world and increase demand for frequency converters and other power electronics products.

'The societal importance of electrical engineering is growing with the energy transition. The transition to using electricity more won't be possible without a strong industry and excellence in electrical machinery and power electronics,' says Professor Jorma Kyyrä, Head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Automation at Aalto University.

Patents for control methods for electric motors

Aalto provides the joint doctoral research projects with strong academic expertise and talented future leaders with the courage to take on challenges. ABB has development needs for equipment and customer interfaces, which serve as a basis to jointly defining the research topics and themes.

'To maintain our market leadership in the frequency converter business, our products must be the best in the world in terms of competitiveness, features, reliability, performance and cost-effectiveness. Through university partnerships, we ensure that we have the necessary expertise to do this. ABB Drives currently has 50 PhDs working in Helsinki,' says Kauhanen.  

Professor Marko Hinkkanen's research group at Aalto has long collaborated with ABB to provide cutting-edge expertise in the control of electrical motor drives and frequency converters. 'The industry and electric vehicle manufacturing has been shifting from the use of traditional induction motors towards energy-efficient synchronous motors. We've developed a control principle that works equally well for all types of machines. A common control interface makes it easier to deploy the products and also to implement automatic tuning,' says Hinkkanen.

Hinkkanen's team is also developing control methods for grid converters, which the electricity grid will need as renewable energy production grows. The collaboration with ABB has resulted in several invention disclosures and patents, with applications ranging from industrial uses to wind turbines.

University research is able to take risks needed for innovations

During a doctoral research project, which takes around four years, students concentrate on the research problem in depth and look for innovative solutions. 'The time span of a doctoral thesis is longer than that of current product development. Dissertations can also be risky and involve trying something completely new, and doctoral students look at things with an open mind. There are risks, but there's also the potential for groundbreaking insights,' says Kyyrä.

ABB and Aalto have a long tradition of cooperation. Gottfrid Strömberg, who founded ABB Finland more than 130 years ago, was a graduate of the Polytechnic College (later the Helsinki University of Technology and then Aalto University) and was Finland's first teacher and professor of electrical engineering.

From the perspective of a prospective doctoral student, cooperation with ABB often starts with their thesis, which gives them a chance to get to know the company and the subject of a possible future dissertation. 'In this case, the doctoral research can be continued seamlessly. After completing a dissertation for ABB, my students are almost always hired by ABB,' says Hinkkanen.

'There's an increasing need for doctoral-level understanding, as things are becoming more complex and integrated between different fields of expertise. A significant proportion of the doctoral students graduating from Aalto are employed in industry,' says Kyyrä. 

ABB:n johtoa vierailulla Aallon ePowerHub-laboratoriossa.
From the left: Proferssors Anouar Belahcen, Jorma Kyyrä and Marko Hinkkanen, ABB Finland's Managing Director Pekka Tiitinen, doctoral student Tuure Nurminen and Matti Kauhanen, VP, Technology Manager at ABB Drives. Photo: Aalto University/Anne Kosola.

International students bring expertise to Finland

As a global technology company, ABB offers a wide range of career opportunities both within Finland and abroad.

'When a person trained in a specific area of expertise comes to work for us and has access to our knowledge, support and tools, new products are created that help us succeed,' Kauhanen says.

Aalto is an international university that annually graduates a large number of foreign graduates, for whom a doctoral degree opens doors to working in Finland. This is also reflected in the ABB Drives business unit in Helsinki.

'During my long career, we've hired more and more doctors of science with an international background from Aalto. People from different cultural backgrounds enrich our operations and bring new perspectives and their own networks,' says Kauhanen.

Around half of the doctoral students in Professor Hinkkanen's research group have an international background. According to the latest career monitoring survey, almost half of Aalto's immigrant doctors of science are employed in Finland.

'All my doctoral students have been employed by companies immediately after graduation. Recently, companies have also started to hire more graduate engineers with an international background,' says Hinkkanen.

Text by Marjukka Puolakka

 Anne Kosola

Anne Kosola

Manager, Corporate Relations, Partnership Development
 Marko Hinkkanen

Marko Hinkkanen

Professori (Associate professor)
T410 Dept. Electrical Engineering and Automation

Strategic corporate partner ABB

Aalto University and ABB cooperate in many different areas, and all six Aalto schools are involved. The cooperation has continued for more than 130 years.

Students presenting their project work in electronics

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