New technologies can radically change production processes even in traditional industries: energy, mining, and metalworking. However, not everyone is ready for breakthrough developments — business is waiting for ready-made solutions. However, industry partners of the Power & Energy and Mining & Metals tracks of the GenerationS accelerator firmly believe that scientists need t work directly with corporations in order to turn a promising technology into a workable product.
The latest developments are in demand and are able to make a breakthrough not only in those areas where the market is only being formed, but also in companies of capital-intensive industries, where basic technologies have been used for more than a decade, as it happens in power engineering, metalworking and mining. So, one of the main trends that can have a significant impact on these industries is digitalization, which makes production more flexible and at the same time provides a significant saving of resources — both raw materials and energy. According to PwC, this will increase the company’s revenue by an average of 2.7% per year and reduce costs by 3.2%. In terms of production, two thirds of companies on the global market are interested in the use of remote control technologies, a third — in using robots and drones, as it follows from the Deloitte polls.
It cannot be said that companies are ready to invest significant funds in new developments while expecting the emergence of an "ideal technology", a ready solution. The main problem they face is not the purchase of the right technology but the transformation from inside — these industries remain among the most closed ones for external suppliers of innovative solutions.
However, last year the developers had an opportunity to work side by side with several of the largest companies in the energy, mining and metal processing sectors. Within the framework of the corporate accelerators GenerationS, the Power & Energy track appeared, which is designed for start-ups with projects in the field of modern energy generation, development of personal energy sources and storage devices, and Mining & Metals, which combined start-ups whose technologies can improve the quality and efficiency of metal processing and field development. In the first case the largest private Russian energy company EuroSibEnergo and its affiliated Irkutsk Electric Grid Company became industrial partners of the tracks, in the second case — Krastsvetmet, a company engaged in the processing of non-ferrous and precious metals, and the largest diamond mining company, ALROSA.
According to the estimates of the industrial partners of the Mining & Metals track, the most promising technologies in these industries are related to automation and modelling of technological processes, as well as the creation of new materials (including composite materials), ultra-precise processing, and more efficient enrichment of raw materials. Equally important is a set of new technologies that make production more environmentally friendly, including through the effective energy supply of the mining process. ALROSA is also looking for solutions that would allow the development of deposits with a low diamond content, located at a significant distance from existing production facilities with a developed infrastructure.
Unlike IT, a number of new methods, technologies and equipment for our industry is quite limited, not only in Russia, but also on foreign markets, said experts at ALROSA. Moreover, according to the director of development of RVC and the GenerationS ideologist Gulnara Bikkulova, it was difficult to motivate projects to submit applications since a stereotype has formed that companies in the field of metallurgy are not ready to work with innovative solutions from the foreign market. Another barrier was a long-term process of introducing new developments in the field of metallurgy into the production chains of corporations. As a result, more than two hundred and fifty applications were collected from all over Russia, 17 start-ups became participants in the corporate accelerator.
The Grand Prix of this track, the practical part of which took place in Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk and Mirny (Yakutia), was awarded to Vitaly Kim’s project for the production of nano-ink from precious metals for the electronics industry (can be used to create various electronic devices, including flexible ones, making it possible to reduce the price of electronic products). The same project also won the GenerationS final in the TechMoscow Awards nomination from the Moscow Innovation Agency.
Projects by Svetlana Kuzmitskaya ("PVD technology of creating rhodium coatings for jewellery and technical products"), by Andrey Gorbunov ("Making powders of precious metals and devices for 3D printing of jewellery and technical products of complex volumetric performance") and by Tatyana Grigorieva ("Mechanochemical preparation of ultra-disperse metals and precious metals") have also reached the final of the track.
Several start-ups will be able to become suppliers of ALROSA. As the company reported, the management of the "subsidiary" — the institute "Yakutniproalmaz" — was interested in six projects, and specific decisions were made with respect of five of them. The company plans e. g. to purchase this year a set of innovative roofing equipment for flaw detection of waterproofing from NPK Electroengineering from Ekaterinburg. It is planned to involve the same developer over the next two years in testing equipment for the seismic prediction of water cavities and the continuity of the mountain massif. It is expected that an agreement on the acquisition of software to automate geological exploration will be signed, the company also showed interest in an innovative sorbent designed to improve the quality of drinking water purification.
The finalists of the same track were given the opportunity to become residents of R & D park of Krastsvetmet company. The company itself is primarily engaged in refining (cleaning) and processing of non-ferrous and precious metals. The participants also gained access to the analytical laboratory of the company, one of the ten best in the world. The residents of R & D Park can receive orders not only directly from the company, but also from partner corporations.
For Krasttsvetmet, the R & D Park is a pilot project to implement the principle of open innovation, says Maxim Irishkin, head of innovative projects at Krasttsvetmet. "In today’s world, it is already impossible for a single company to cover absolutely all areas of research. Currently, business is on the way to introduce principles of open innovation, which allow us to find promising technologies in the market and develop them in our own interests. Besides, this principle allows us to reduce the company’s costs of searching for and developing technologies, explains Maxim Irishkin their decision to launch the R & D Park. According to him, Krastsvetmet needed not just a platform, but a whole infrastructure of interaction between science, production and business.
The site provides access to raw materials based on precious metals and the ability to work with them, research equipment and allows to conduct tests directly in the existing company’s operating processes.
"One of the deterrents to the performance of research for start-ups in the area of precious metals is their high cost. The R & D Park is the only place in Russia where it is possible to work with precious metals in the framework of R & D contracts, without actually buying them," says Maxim Irishkin.
The R & D Park has created all the necessary conditions for the collection and processing of all materials and waste resulting from research in order to have a possibility to return precious metals to production following all the necessary studies with minimal losses, and, therefore, significantly reduce the research budget.
New developments in the energy sector that make it possible to form a single intellectual system are even more critical. These are primarily the various elements of the smart grid system — a system which allows to abandon a single point of power supply management and thereby dramatically increase flexibility and sustainability of this process. They include measuring instruments, interfaces, technologies that increase reliability of networks and minimize power losses during transmission and distribution.
"Of course, in the 21st century, everyone is striving to optimize the resource base through the introduction of robotics, automation systems and smart grids. These areas can be considered the most promising. Currently, many research teams together with large companies are aimed at solving the same tasks: renewable energy, technologies of energy accumulation and storage, development of new fuel types," notes the General Director of EuroSibEnergo, Vyacheslav Solomin.
For example, one of the main tasks researchers in the US see themselves facing is not only the development of more efficient ways of energy storage, but also the modernization of the power supply system to give a greater number of small energy suppliers a chance to join it, for example, users of solar panels.
"The costs in solar energy are now mainly related just to the installation of the battery and connection to the network. To further reduce the costs of introducing renewable energy sources, the energy distribution system itself must become much more flexible, both in terms of physical infrastructure and management," notes Ken Dulaney, Director of Innovation at the FREEDM Research Centre at the North Carolina State University.
The full-time acceleration program of the Power & Energy track was held in Irkutsk. Out of the 300 teams applying, 13 became participants in the corporate accelerator. A transformer with ceramic insulation was recognized as the best project (it has low cost, has almost unlimited lifetime and increased efficiency with smaller dimensions and weight), the second and third places came to two another applications which can implemented in practice — acoustoelectric transformer, which allows non-contact diagnostics of high-voltage networks and the project on automatic monitoring of the state of insulators at high-voltage lines using RFID technologies, which allows to diagnose the breakdowns at an early stage and warn in advance about the need to replace or service the insulators. Within the framework of the track, an ambitious project was also considered for the creation of robots rope-walkers to search for and eliminate accidents on power lines.
As Vyacheslav Solomin points out, being an industrial partner of the Power & Energy track, the company gained access to a wide range of technical innovations in the energy sector. EuroSibEnergo is interested in all the winning projects. Some of them will be put into trial operation, others will continue to develop. "It’s too early to speak about equity participation or the acquisition of products of start-ups.
First, it is necessary to conduct test operation of the solutions and analyse the results. Those projects that we identified for ourselves as potentially interesting, will undergo a comprehensive testing — first in the laboratory, then in the pilot launch mode. After that, we will be able to evaluate the performance of the development, their effectiveness, and based on this data, we will make a decision to purchase and install new equipment at power grid facilities," explains the head of the company.
However, participation in the accelerator allows companies not only to gain access to new technologies, but also to change their own production processes. Hence, Vyacheslav Solomin admits that working experience with developers can launch a "new wave" in the company, which will affect the existing processes.
"Even now, among the very important criteria for evaluating projects related to technological change, we consider the possibility of integrating these solutions into the existing production infrastructure," says the head of EuroSibEnergo.
Companies also note some difficulties with the selection of projects, since the degree of their technological and market workings was different. "Some start-ups did not have a clear understanding about the ultimate purpose of the technology, the customer’s vision and understanding of their needs was not fully developed — the accelerator participants mostly think like scientists, not managers and entrepreneurs. Moreover, in spite of the obvious technological advantage of the finalist projects, in some cases there were gaps in the understanding of business processes and integration into the technological chain, says Vyacheslav Solomin. ALROSA adds that the "immersion" of project authors in the production reality and their direct communication with the company’s specialists yields good results — it helps the contestants adapt their projects to the needs of the enterprise and bring the developments to the applicable ones in practice.
In this case, individual development, according to Vyacheslav Solomin, even stepped over current requests and demonstrated "very promising know-how, to which the market is not yet de facto ready". This, he said, made the process of selecting the most promising projects even more difficult — opinions on what decision is most interesting did not always coincide, which became the basis for substantive discussions at the level of the company’s management. But even this did not always allow to reach an unambiguous conclusion, as a result, in some cases, the idea arose about their merging solutions into umbrella projects that could complement each other and give the effect of synergy, the company’s head notes.
The main result of participation in the accelerator, the track partners considers bridging the gap between developers of promising solutions and companies that need technologies applicable to production. It is critically important for the first ones to have access to full-fledged sites for testing products and finalizing the technology; meanwhile, for the second ones it is important to have access to the most interesting developments that allow not only to compete in traditional industries, but also to enter new markets.
"The world is changing and the speed of these changes has increased significantly, especially with the development of mass informatisation processes, therefore, in order to remain successful, it is necessary to comply with these changes", concludes ALROSA.