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Students accelerate product development – PDP courses at Design Factory for 25 years

The semester-long PDP course brings together students from different fields to take on a real-life challenge. In the latest course, which ended in May, the students improved the production of a packaging material and developed a new steering system for electric boats.
Kuvassa on useita PDP-rintamerkkejä pöydällä, kuva-aiheet ovat muunnoksia Paluu tulevaisuuteen -elokuvasta
The brand image of PDP's 25th anniversary was inspired by the movie Back to the Future. Photo: Aalto Design Factory.

For a quarter of a century, the Product Development Course (PDP) has gathered students of different backgrounds to solve real challenges that companies face. The students get nine months of experience with problem-solving and often their first real-life encounter with a particular industry. 

For the companies sponsoring the course, PDP collaboration provides help with a specific problem – often from a new perspective, since it gets approached holistically by a multidisciplinary, multicultural and multilingual student team. 

For the world, PDP provides solutions in the form of the 300 projects which students have produced over the years. A total of 3,000 students have participated in the course over the last 25 years. 

This year, the students were challenged by Saab, Konecranes, Ensto and Lifa-Air, among others. One of the sponsors was Foamwood, a company founded by a group of Aalto University researchers.

Lähikuva valkoisesta vaahdosta kahden teräslieriön välissä, taustalla näkyvät ihmisen sormet

Foamheads – wood-based foam faster than before

  • Partner/sponsor: Foamwood – later Woamy Ltd 
  • Product: Foamwood, a biodegradable and recyclable wood-based foam 
  • Student group: Juan Gil Escribano, Yulia Kulkova, Jēkabs Ozols, Susanna Partanen, Artis Rušiņš, Marika Taipalus, Akseli Vuorilehto

A group of researchers had developed an entirely new foam material – the biodegradable Foamwood – as part of Aalto University’s Smart Foams research project. Wood-based foam could replace styrofoam, bubble wrap, polyurethane and other oil-based packaging materials. But that require getting the foam out of the laboratory and into the world.

The challenge presented to the students was exceptionally broad.

Susanna Partanen, the leader of the Foamheads student project, highlights the importance of sustainability. The group was brought together by the notion of designing a product that would serve as an ecological and sustainable solution to a real problem. 

‘It’s an incredibly rewarding addition to your studies to have your project actually accelerate an industry,’ says Juan Gil Escribano.

The Foamheads group was quickly divided into two parts; some students focused on mechanical engineering, while others explored the applications of the material, mapping out the market and how the company could launch its product. 

The further along the project got, the more important it became to achieve a common outcome even though the work was done in smaller groups.

So what was the outcome? 

Nine months had passed, and the budget had totalled 10,000 euros.

First, the group was grateful for the sponsor’s collaboration. Working closely with Foamwood researchers made it easy to ask questions and get additional materials when needed.

‘We could ask them anything,’ Partanen says. 

‘And the sponsor always reminded us that they were giving us a free hand,’ Gil Escribano adds. 

At the PDP gala, the Foamheads presented the results of the project. The ambitious idea of dividing the project in two parts, technical and applied, had succeeded.

With Akseli Vuorilehto and Juan Gil Escribano in the lead, the group that had focused on the technical side had boosted the production of Foamwood foam.

‘We figured out how the manufacturing and production of foam could be increased from lab conditions to meet real needs,’ the engineering students recall.

During the course, the group managed to multiply the foam’s production speed 50-fold by using the equipment they had developed and built on their own.

In addition to the device, the group also presented a prototype. A beautiful envelope which could easily be used to mail a breakable item was on display at the gala. The envelope had been padded with foam patterning – Foamwood becomes a light and durable material once it hardens. The material is suitable for packaging and is easily recyclable because it is a bioproduct. At the gala, the Foamheads demonstrated its non-toxicity by offering it to guests to eat.

Edible shock- and heat-resistant wood foam could replace plastic packaging
Foamheads-tiimin seitsemän jäsentä istumassa lattialla ryhmäkuvassa, joka on otettu työpajatilassa. Henkilöiden takana on violetti taustakangas ja ympärillä tiiliseinää sekä sähkölaitteiden ohjauspaneeleita.
The Foamheads group multiplied foam production 50-fold.
Sähköveneen musta ohjainyksikkö muistuttaa tietokonepeliohjainta, siinä on pieni näyttötaulu sekä kolme nappulaa. Yksikkö on kiinnitetty puiseen lakattuun konsoliin.

Elwood – new steering system for electric boats

  • Partner/sponsor: Elwood Boats Ltd
  • Product: Handmade wooden electric boats
  • Group of students: Oona Linna, Mattias Nystrand, Valtteri Rantanen, Andreas Rosas, Priya Singh

‘It was the greatest boat trip of my life,’ recalls Priva Singh, a master’s student in mechanical engineering. Wooden-boat manufacturer Elwood Boats began its work with the PDP group by taking them on a boat trip near Otaniemi. The group leader frequently uses superlatives when describing the handmade Elwood boats.

‘They are the world’s most beautiful boats: elegant, ecological and completely wooden. They are manufactured in Kuopio as sustainably as possible.’

Sustainability was also at the core of the company’s assignment. Elwood boats are electric boats, and only their steering system was not yet entirely electric. The group was assigned the task of developing a replacement for the hydraulic steering system.

In typical PDP fashion, the Elwood group was multidisciplinary, multinational and multilingual. But mechanical engineering was the common denominator: four of the group’s five members study the field, while the fifth, Oona Linna, is a student of economics. 

The group not only developed an electric steering system for the boats but also redesigned the steering system entirely. The electric steering system is modular and can be easily adjusted to suit the user’s needs. It can be attached with a few cords and doesn’t use hydraulic oils which might leak.

After the PDP treatment, the electric boat can be steered in several ways. At the spring gala, the group displayed a box-like prototype in which the rudder could be moved with the wheel, autopilot and joystick controller. With Oona Linna as the lead, the sponsor also received new marketing and brand strategies, and the Kuopio-based company’s website was renewed. 

Elwood-tiimin henkilöt seisovat ryhmäkuvassa kädet toistensa hartioilla ja pitävät keskellä käsissään suurta teräksistä Aalto-vaasin muotoista tarjotinta, joka on kehystetty ja kiinnitetty alustaan.
Elwood was named team of the year. Company founder Pasi Virnes and his spouse Tiina celebrated with the students.

Text: Tiiu Pohjolainen

This article has been published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 31 (issuu.com), October 2022.

Back to the future products

The 25th anniversary gala of the PDP course took place on the 13th of May at Design Factory. Many interesting future products such as electric wooden boat, extremely precise factory crane and edible packing material were presented at the Gala.

Read more
Picture from PdP Gala
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