VHK : : research engineers

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Starting out

During almost 12 years, from 1984 to 1995, VHK was the external consultant for marketing strategy and product development at Nefit BV. Nefit is the Dutch company that, back in 1981, introduced the first condensing boilers in the consumer market. Conceptually, the energy saving condensing boilers were a revolutionary innovation in a market where atmospheric boilers were the norm for decades. But going from a revolutionary concept to commercial success and technological maturity is a long, risky and difficult process.

VHK-founding partner Rob van Holsteijn experienced this struggle first-hand: from the looming financial abyss in the initial years to the first steady growth, from the first Dutch 'me-too' competitors until Nefit becoming the absolute leader in the Netherlands boiler market. In 1990 European manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon. Nefit was taken over by one of the largest German companies in 1993 and a second-takeover by an even larger German company took place in 1995. In that year, the new owner parted with the external consultant and VHK's unique position as an external advisor/developer in the very closed boiler industry community came to an end. In that year, the Nefit production facility in the East of the Netherlands was not only the largest producer of condensing boilers in the Netherlands, but --through its new owners-- also in Europe.

Over these 12 years VHK helped Nefit to realise that relying solely on the commercial efforts of the whole-sellers is not enough to convince installers to take on board a revolutionary new product. VHK assisted the Nefit sales department to set up a dealer-network, complete with personal visits, training courses and commercial incentives aimed directly at the installer. VHK assisted in getting the Dutch government on board, who --through subsidies, promotion and building regulations-- saw a great opportunity for the condensing boiler in realising its new energy-efficiency goals in the building sector, following the second oil crisis. VHK assisted in the development of new products and performed part of design and engineering in newer areas for Nefit's R&D. For instance, in the second generation of condensing boilers, VHK introduced the use of plastics, a new material in the boiler-sector, to dramatically cut production costs for several internal and external components. The aesthetics of Nefit products were improved, resulting in a prize-winning indirect water heater design. For the best-selling Nefit thermostat VHK not only looked at the form-design but also worked with electronics developers to come up with a user-friendly interface, offering new functionality in terms of comfort and energy-efficiency. That collaboration also resulted in new diagnostic tools for the installers, assisting them to find errors and solutions effectively and efficiently.

Policy research

Nefit was not the only company for which VHK worked in the field of space- and water heating. VHK also developed a line of directly gas-fired heaters for Winterwarm and worked on electric water heaters for Inventum. But basically, after a contractually determined period, our hands were free to enter a new challenge: technical policy research for energy efficiency of boilers and water heaters, first for the Dutch government and then --the ultimate challenge-- the Ecodesign and Energy Labelling programme of the European Commission.

For almost 5 years, between January 2006 and mid-2010, we worked for European Commission officials, industry, NGOs and national policy makers to realise something that was never successfully done before: to build a robust technical framework to measure and label the energy-efficiency and emissions of space and water heating appliances on an equal technology-neutral basis. In working groups with European industry's best technical R&D experts a set of complex calculation tools and existing test standards was (re)shaped into a set of rules and tests that was manageable within a legal European context. At the same time, due to the involvement of the best market research company in the sector —BRG Consult— we were able to give EU policy makers a comprehensive picture of what these measures could mean, in terms of costs and benefits, for the whole of the EU market.

In 2013, slightly amended by the follow-up political process, the set of rules and tests became the basis for the four Ecodesign and mandatory Energy Label regulations for central heating boilers and water heaters entering into force.

This outcome is not the end of the process, but the beginning. For a subject that is so complex from so many angles, it will take a lot of technical, commercial and entrepreneurial skills to find new ways. But in a global market, the Ecodesign and Energy Label yardstick gives the EU industry a fighting chance to compete on the only thing that will keep our industry alive and makes it thrive: product performance and quality.

In a traditional sector, built on habits developed over generations, it will take a lot of political courage and wisdom to properly weigh conservative and progressive forces. But if we are serious about fighting climate change and reducing society's energy dependency it is impossible to ignore these two products, boilers and water heaters, that constitute almost one-third of our CO2-emissions and energy use.

 

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