2015_2 Visionary collaboration master

Visionary collaboration

In partnership with Aalto University, Wärtsilä plays a key role in helping mould the next generation of product developers.

Text: ANNA AISTRICH Photo:

As many competencies are developed better through doing, more universities now offer project-based, or experiential learning programmes. One can learn a theory or general skill from a textbook or lecture, but, when actually applying the concept in the “real world,” the nuances become apparent. There are finer points that one cannot pick up simply by reading, and often they are among the most important aspects to know. Real-life, industry-led projects give students opportunities to observe and understand what is happening, refine and increase their knowledge, and then practice and test their skills. In addition to helping students become more confident in their field, experiential learning motivates students to take on new challenges and drives them to find solutions to problems that are presented to them. This is why hands-on learning – from apprenticeships to vocational work experience – has been a key element of trade learning for centuries.

For the fourth time, Wärtsilä partnered with teams of engineering, industrial design and business students in the Product Development Project (PdP) course at Aalto University in Helsinki. The PdP enables these students to put their academic knowledge into practice in a product design challenge to benefit their industry partners in “bring[ing] new ideas, technologies or business plans to life.”

Ilari Parkkinen, the Wärtsilä employee mentor paired with a group of students, sees the importance of working through this experiential process. “At the beginning of the project, I tell the student team that I don’t want to see a single technological solution during the first two months. I do it to highlight the distinction of an end-user or customer focus: first finding out the real customer/end-user needs and then building solutions based on those findings. It can be surprisingly hard in the beginning because we are used to moving ahead with technological solutions without first thinking about what the customer/end-user might actually need.”

Drive11, the 11-member international (9 from Finland and 2 from India) team partnered with Parkkinen, wanted to create a solution to help streamline the process of constructing power plants. It took 8.5 months of work via weekly Skype meetings between Finland and India to design and build a prototype of a task management and seamless communications system. The final product, an application called Taskar, was designed to simplify the power plant assembly process so that multilingual team members could complete the work without having to follow written instructions from a manual, which may not be available in their own language. Although Taskar is the functional end result of the collaboration, the most valuable product was the expertise the team members gained through the process.

Project Manager Saga Santala, an Industrial Design student, felt that the collaboration helped everyone recognize his/her own limitations and learn how to be a better team player. With a multicultural team of different personalities and genders working across three continents, Santala experienced just how critical teamwork and open communication are to good cooperation. For example, when part of the team did a site visit to a power plant in Cabo Verde, they had to work hard to find ways to transfer the knowledge they gained to team members who were not present.

For Romil Desai, in Industrial Design, getting input from people in the field was essential to creating a useful product. Workers suggested additions that improved the functionality of the app, and they thought of applied uses that the Drive11 team had not considered before.

Jukka Kemppainen, a Mechanical Engineering student, explained how the team members had to learn new skills to be able to complete their project. They also had to ask questions to find out which pieces were still needed and then find out from whom or where they could get the required information, materials or skills.

Interestingly, Taskar employs many of the same learning elements that the students themselves received from their collaboration with Parkkinen. When trying to learn how to do something new, experts suggest breaking the task down into smaller components, mastering them one at a time and then adding them all together. Visual learning is also a great way to speed up the process, which is why people search YouTube for instructional videos on almost every topic and then follow the steps modeled in the video. Finally, to achieve mastery, the learner needs the ability to evaluate the outcome. Since it is difficult for someone just learning to do it alone, he or she needs someone else, like a mentor or coach, to judge whether and how well the desired result was achieved. As psychologist and author Daniel Kahneman explains, “The acquisition of skills requires a regular environment, an adequate opportunity to practice, and rapid and unequivocal feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions.”

Taskar incorporates all three steps. Using a tablet enabled with Augmented Reality, a plant assembly worker receives step-by-step instructions for tasks downloaded from Microsoft Project. By overlaying directions on the live image of a structure, assembly instructions are easier to understand because the worker sees exactly which parts and tools are needed, where the parts go and how the work is progressing in real-time. As the task proceeds, required approvals from a supervisor are requested and can be given remotely through Taskar. In addition to getting feedback on all critical steps, a worker using Taskar can move on to the next step more quickly than if waiting for a supervisor to be available onsite physically. By improving work efficiency and accuracy through this hands-on instruction, Taskar could help Wärtsilä save time and resources.

Although the learning process was aimed mainly at the students, Parkkinen and Wärtsilä also gained wisdom from the partnership. “The students challenge our normal way of working with their enthusiasm and out-of-the-box, fresh ideas for addressing customer needs. It’s crucial to be able adapt our solutions whenever the customer needs change.”

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