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The Future Has Already Started

Norway's reputation as a wealthy oil nation can confuse an alert visitor. Despite a mammoth petroleum fund generating dizzying dividends, Norway's government already frets about a future without these riches, and sees its current wealth as an inadequate hedge against...

Norway’s process industries are riding a two-year revival reminiscent of record boom times in 2001. The Federation of Norwegian Process Industries (PIL) can report steady growth since the beginning of 2003, with exports for the sector as a whole rising an additional 14 percent in the first five months of 2004.

Technological innovations in special-interest branches like petroleum, wood processing, metals and chemicals continue to produce valuable processes and niche products, but it is only recently that the need to enter and catch up in the research and development race has been given proper priority.

The Research Council of Norway (Forskningsrådet), which allocates more than NOK 4 billion in national funding per year, recently redefined its goals and strategies to recognize the need to work more closely with industry as well as internationalize. The Ministry of Trade and Industry has already pledged to increase research funding in order to achieve the near doubling of expenditure needed to bring the country into line with the European commission goal of investing 3% of national GNP on R&D.

The new nanoreactor at the Institute for Energy Technology (IFE) in Kjeller gives Norwegian researchers a leading position in the international development of nanotechnology and a potential edge for national industry.

The Next Great Frontier

While Norway may have invested little and late, it has already accomplished a great deal, particularly in the vital field of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the next great frontier, where matter is manipulated at the atomic level to create new materials and a range of new products literally only limited by the imagination.

The Research Council of Norway’s NANOMAT – Nanotechnology and New Materials – programme aims to create a basis for new research-intensive industries, and in 2004 the call for projects in direct cooperation with industry began. FUNMAT (Functional Materials and Nanotechnology) is another high-level nanoresearch project that coordinates cross-disciplinary investigation at the University of Oslo, NTNU (Norwegian University of Science and Technology), IFE (Institute for Energy Technology), and the industrial and technical research foundation SINTEF.

NANOMAT began in 2002, but the firm n-TEC had already been formed the year before to develop a process for the mass production of carbon nanotubes based on the breakthrough work of Professor Thomas Ebbesen.

Carbon nanotubes are considered the building block of future nanotechnology and the nuclear facility at the IFE in Kjeller, Norway – where n-TEC and IFE work together – is already a world leader in producing hydrogen storage systems that could remove the greatest obstacle to creating an alternative fuel system for automobiles.

The IFE nanolaboratory houses the region’s first production reactor for nanomaterial, and the research here can create profound benefits for industry, as the unique physical, chemical and electrical properties of carbon nanotubes can be studied in depth and used to produce revolutionary new materials.

Improving Process Automation

Another challenge facing Norway’s process industries is the increasingly difficult struggle to compete against larger or cheaper rivals, both at home and abroad. Labour research foundation Fafo has found that Norwegian industry excels in two key areas – production systems and technological development. This kind of intellectually based capital has allowed companies like Borregaard to revamp and specialize in the co-product lignin, and helped industry find ways to increase efficiency by improving process automation.

The NFA (Norwegian Automatization Association) has striven to promote industrial automation since 1958. The NFA includes 110 firms and institutions and works closely with research and educational institutes in Norway with a goal of transforming technological advances to practical use in industry.

NFA-member Prediktor, a small firm founded in 1995, has an impressive record in creating systems to optimize the operation of process plants. The software suite APIS (Advanced Process Information System) has helped a long list of impressive clients (including Borregaard, Elkem, Norsk Hydro and Aker Maritime) meet their needs for material tracking, traceability, and production quality supervision and reporting. Prediktor’s system is even onboard the world’s largest cruise ship, the Royal Caribbean-owned Voyager of the Seas. Here, like with nanotech, success hinges on the incredible flexibility of the product.

Automation robots so far have the greatest impact on Norwegian industrial efficiency at the packaging and palletizing stage.

Cybernetics – the science concerned with control systems in electronic and mechanical devices – and its application to efficient industrial management is a Prediktor hallmark, and APIS has been developed with the help of the Research Council and Innovation Norway.

The appropriately named Cybernetica is another example of the symbiosis between research and business often seen in the Norwegian R&D sector. Cybernetica, which develops solutions for model-based control, surveillance and optimization of industrial processes, evolved from the research groups in Engineering Cybernetics at SINTEF and NTNU, and still has a strategic agreement with SINTEF.

An emerging field in process efficiency is robotics. This branch is relatively embryonic at the moment but offers production companies an often overlooked option to painful efficiency decisions like relocating to cheaper locations.

Companies like RobotNorge, Robia and vision software specialist Tordivel provide vital ingredients that can aid both production and control, creating cost-cutting opportunities that can spell the difference between viability and bankruptcy. Both robots and expertise can be supplied, with clients learning that an investment in robotics can also mean aid from research funds.

Companies like TI Group Automotive Systems and Orkel saw successful but threatened businesses rescued by introducing process automation equipment, including robots. TI Group, which makes cutting-edge plastic fuel tanks for cars, managed to woo back major client Volvo after paring production costs and stabilizing quality levels thanks to a comprehensive programme of high-tech process automation and robotization. Volvo moved tank production back to the Norwegian company, TI Group won bigger contracts due to their improved capacity and the once-endangered firm has expanded instead.

And while the thought of using industrial robots to help pare costs to a minimum may be foreign to traditional Norwegian values, the recognition of needing to fight for survival is ingrained from the days when rugged terrain and climate were formidable obstacles. Why else this vigilance in the midst of wealth?