Flow: Ensto's Skunkworks

Ensto Flow allows experimentation and collaboration to build things that don’t fit neatly into Ensto’s usual business model. And some of the experiments may even contribute to long-term human survival.

When he talks about the mission of Ensto Flow, Visa Parviainen can sound like Captain James Tiberius Kirk: “To bravely do something that doesn’t come naturally to an established industrial player.”

Parviainen is Ensto’s Chief Technology Officer for Digital Solutions, and his role is to oversee Ensto’s technology strategy and identify situations where synergies can be built. A software engineer Parviainen comes from outside the usual manufacturing ecosystem, and he joined Ensto in late 2017 to help create an environment where, as he puts it, “failure is not only protected, but it’s celebrated when it keeps Ensto from chasing the wrong projects.”

Making things smart

At the core of Ensto Flow is helping decide how Ensto products should communicate to the outside world. “We’re a product company traditionally,” says Parviainen, “but we need to make it easy for a customer to choose an end-to-end solution for a given product.”

So will everything be made smart? Parviainen says there are products, like couplers, that won’t have smartness embedded. But products like circuit breakers, which are currently quite simple, could indeed be made smart. “They can tell us ‘Am I tripped or am I okay?’ All our low-voltage products like transformers and rectifiers will be able to communicate. And all active components down the line — anything with electronics — will have the option for communication.”

Two tracks

Flow offers two tracks. The prototyping track provides an environment for unusual experiments that don’t necessarily have an immediate product application. “We can work together with other companies and both learn something that would have been impossible or expensive to learn alone,” says Parviainen.

The integration track is about creating devices with communications interfaces that other companies may want to incorporate into their own solutions in ways Ensto hasn’t yet imagined – other companies’ products talking to Ensto’s. “We don’t grant exclusivity on use of our APIs” [Application Programming Interfaces], says Parviainen, “so there can be many companies using them. This is us moving toward ecosystems of devices.”

Flow’s first case studies have been in the area of prototyping.

Ericsson and DNA

Ensto recently partnered with Ericsson and DNA, the Finnish telecommunications company, to ensure the radio communications technologies employed in EV charging modems don’t become obsolete. The experiment, which Parviainen characterizes as “highly technical and far under the hood,” took place in the Ensto lab in Porvoo. Later, the prototype was taken public at the Sähkö Tele Valo AV exhibition (electrical equipment fair) in Jyväskylä, Finland, where it was connected to an EV simulator to test charging transactions.

“Ericsson provided the expertise and loaned us the physical modems, and we tested it on DNA’s Cat M1 network,” says Parviainen. Ensto is not looking to immediately replace its current generation of modems but wanted to validate the possibility if the need arose. Failure might have been an outcome in this case. “We might have determined that a heavy investment in compatibility was in order, or that our modem enclosures weren’t compatible with certain radio frequencies. However, we found that it works and when we want to we can start developing it.”

Black flies

Ensto Flow also takes part in projects of major societal importance, where future commercial applications may be nebulous.

For example, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland is researching the use of black soldier fly larvae to convert organic waste into protein for animal feed. Ensto entered the project to create a remotely controllable heating solution for sea containers where the flies are bred.

“It’s a new direction of technology, and it’s good for us to understand what environments our products are used,” says Parviainen. “We’re of course not going to start producing containers to grow larvae, but Flow provides the opportunity to help work toward a circular economy, where low-value matter streams are turned into a highvalue streams. That the value of things doesn’t decrease as they get used in a process is a requirement for longterm human survival. For Ensto, the immediate benefit is taking a set of quite traditional products into a challenging environment to see if we can accommodate them as we delve further into remote control and sensors in our products.

When ‘weird’ becomes the norm

“A home for great ideas and learning and weird stuff that doesn’t neatly fit into the traditional business model” is Parviainen’s description of Ensto Flow.

As Ensto continues to make its products smart, the line between traditional and weird will continue to blur. “In a year Ensto Flow will look different than it does now,” says Parviainen. “But that’s acceptable, enjoyable, and kind of the whole point of it.”


Text: Scott Diel