An editorial in the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat on 4 January hailed Microsoft Excel as the biggest success story in information technology over the last few decades, and speculated on the possibilities of developing a “modern-day Excel”. The editorial underlined the importance of competent users in making the most of Excel’s functions and macros to boost productivity. Yet, there is no shortage of competent Excel users in Finland; after all, Finnish developers were among the first in the world to successfully incorporate mathematical methods derived from natural sciences into commercial Excel environments.
One of the best examples is a process chemistry simulation tool (ChemSheet) developed by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland 15 years ago. It was the first software of its kind to be adopted worldwide, and it incorporated a complicated numerical solution based on the laws of natural science into a user-friendly Excel interface. The software gave chemists and process engineers without detailed knowledge of numerics the ability to make efficient use of chemistry and thermodynamics in solving various process industry problems. VTT’s Excel-based approach has since been replicated by competitors both in Finland and abroad. Another example of Finnish software development is a world-leading metallurgical process simulation program, which was one of the first applications to make use of the Windows environment and Excel.
Supported by the Finnish-built software innovations a tangible boost has been given to productivity around the world. One of the best examples is in Germany, where a fall of 40% in carbon dioxide emissions resulting from zinc smelting furnaces has been documented. In Finland, an international success story has been made of an Excel-based expert system for designing incineration plants, which combines process and computing know-how. The new system helps designers of residual-fuel and waste incineration plants to make better choices of materials and cut investment costs by several millions of euros, depending on the size of the plant. This is a substantial figure, as these kinds of plants generally cost between EUR 50 million and EUR 100 million to build.
The same expert system allows Finnish businesses to support their international customers in adopting new fuel mixes, while also minimising their plants’ emissions. These kinds of solutions therefore not only contribute to process and hardware exports, but also generate new forms of international business based on technological consultancy services. The increasing digitalisation of production processes also creates the potential for making use of spreadsheet software.
The examples above represent the Best Available Technology according to the EU’s BAT classification. The double-digit percentage cuts in unit costs and in reducing emissions that can be achieved with the help of these technologies also make them internationally competitive. These “killer apps” of simulation software usually work behind the scenes, invisible to the general public but vital for boosting the productivity of industrial supply chains. Their nature as trade secrets also means that they are rarely featured in professional or scientific publications.
The development of new digital applications requires not merely trust between the industry and the academic community but typically also a few years of research, including testing and theoretical development. Short-term project funding is usually available within the Finnish innovation aid infrastructure. Finding sponsors for longer-term research, such as initiatives aimed at developing completely new technologies or promoting concepts such as the sustainable circular economy, is more challenging. When successful, however, these kinds of initiatives produce practical solutions that, by combining Finland’s solid process expertise and information technology know-how, bring about cleaner technologies with minimal emissions and considerable export potential.
In Finland, the discovery of a modern-day Excel could be just around the corner.
Research Professor in VTT’s Process Chemistry research team