Listening: the heart of R&D

Hearing what customers, sales, and product managers say is at the core of a healthy R&D culture.

Dr. Anssi Savelius was born with a curious mind. As a kid he was interested in building, and he tinkered with electronics and mopeds. He didn’t blow up his parents’ basement with a chemistry experiment, though he will admit to once freezing a room in the university accelerator laboratory when he left the valve on a bottle liquid nitrogen open overnight (minus 196 degrees Celsius). “The next morning the entire lab room was frozen. I became famous for this at the accelerator lab.”

Savelius earned a PhD in experimental nuclear physics, and his keen interest in pioneering energy measurement technology led him to a career at Enermet Group (acquired by the Swiss company, Landis+Gyr, in 2006). In May 2020, his path led to Ensto, where he joined the company as Senior Vice President of R&D and Technology.

Customer-driven R&D

While one might imagine an R&D laboratory as a kind of skunkworks where mad scientists bring ideas to life and create gadgets fit for James Bond, reality is more mundane. “Genius is fine,” says Savelius, “but what if the customer doesn’t want it?”

Real life is more of a symbiosis, he says. “The product development team does the research and design, and the lab does testing and verification. We need new innovations, but we’ve got to understand what the customer needs. So we listen to the customer, and we collaborate heavily with Ensto’s sales- and product management teams.” It’s this agile approach that will differentiate Ensto from the giants and make it a world-class provider in the product niches it selects.

There are two types of innovation that Ensto engages in. The first is incremental innovation, an approach that improves and modifies existing products. For example, an investment can be made to broaden Ensto product families and make them more cost effective. “Take clamps and connectors,” says Savelius. “We can modify them so they’ll work in the US market. We can revisit material selection for efficiencies in production.”

The second approach is radical innovation for Ensto. “We can connect new technologies like IoT to existing products,” he says. “We can monitor the condition of the underground line, using temperature- and partial discharge measurements in the terminations, for example. With this data you can predict faults in the line — predictive maintenance helping customers to be as sustainable as possible. It also means lower maintenance costs for the customer. And the utility companies are interested in the data we collect.”

University relationships

Under Savelius’s leadership, Ensto will continue to develop its relationships with universities. One relationship is with Aalto University, Finland's science and research university. Ensto funds research and retains the intellectual property rights.

A current initiative is the product development of an arc suppression coil designed to prevent wildfires caused by earth faults in medium voltage networks. "It’s essentially a large inductor that reacts in a millisecond to suppress an electric arc when trees touch overhead lines," says Savelius. "It works thanks to electronics, software, and a unique algorithm – and we're the only ones who have it." The product is currently in proof-of-concept stage in the lab, with the pilot scheduled for 2021.

A second initiative with Aalto is building smart sensors. "In substations, for example, there are cable endings with an insulator that needs to be cleaned by the utility network," says Savelius. "Currently those are cleaned according to a schedule based on time. But our smart partial discharge sensor enables preventive maintenance to be done when it actually needs done, making utility network maintenance work more predictive and efficient."

‘Our very smart team’

Savelius believes in focus as expounded in Ensto’s “Two businesses, two focuses” strategy. He speaks of clear responsibilities, taking on projects that can yield results, and listening. “We need to give everyone across the organization a chance to express their ideas.” And those ideas often come from those close to the product and the customer.

“I’m more of coach than someone who gives hard directives,” he says. “The bosses are not necessarily the experts. It’s the team members who possess the expertise, and the directors who have to empower and enable our very smart R&D team.”