Gorenje – a development partnership with the University of Ljubljana for almost 70 years
Gorenje are a well-known manufacturer of white goods, although few remember how they started out in 1950: as a manufacturer of agricultural machinery. Their range of fruit mills became particularly successful and, in 1956, they were granted their first patent, for a threshing machine. Two years later, the company entered the household appliances sector. In a history stretching across almost 70 years, Gorenje has established itself on global markets as a manufacturer of innovative, technologically sophisticated household appliances distinguished by their superb design. Gorenje builds on its innovative approach and protects it with around 200 patents and patent applications. In 2018 Gorenje, having been taken over by the Asian giant Hisense, also acquired the right to use the knowledge and know-how protected by several thousand Hisense patents.
We spoke to Aleš Mihelič, PhD, from Gorenje’s research competence centre for washing machines and dryers, about the company’s collaboration with the University of Ljubljana.
How does Gorenje tackle the innovation process?
Like every large company, Gorenje has very precisely defined procedures set out in its rulebook, and employees and departments dedicated to the development process and the process of introducing changes and manufacturing appliances.
For every new project, we carry out thorough studies and define the starting points for the technology of the product and the manufacturing, product design, sales strategy, marketing strategy, and so on. These are the things we consider:
- the wishes of consumers, which obliges us to monitor global trends and the wishes expressed by consumers in focus groups;
- trends in the field of design and product and manufacturing technologies;
- the target markets and market segments to which we wish to sell (middle-ranking or premium segments);
- pre-development studies of the development, design and technology;
- our own analysis of the competition and their products across all specialist areas.
Development, which includes a large number of factors, is definitely a complex process. As investments in a new product can very quickly reach millions of euros, care in the planning and implementation process is vital.
How do you collaborate with the University of Ljubljana?
The University of Ljubljana is our strategic development partner, and we have been involved in development cooperation with them since the company was established. We work together on national projects co-financed by the line ministries or agencies (science, economy) and on international projects, European Commission, e.g. Horizon 2020.
To make development cooperation with the university easier, Gorenje signed umbrella agreement on research and development cooperation some years back. We have long-term agreements signed with strategically important research groups whose knowledge and services we employ on a frequent basis. We work with other groups on individual activities lasting up to one year.
Why did you decide to look for collaboration opportunities at the faculties?
Despite its complexity, the development cycle at Gorenje is very short, as we have to present new (or at least improved) products every year at electronics shows. Of course, customers expect improved, beautifully designed appliances in the shops every year. With the heavy competition that exists on the household appliances market and the wide choice available, this presents a considerable challenge.
Collaborating with faculties enables us to speed up the development process and the process of eliminating any problems at the product design stage.
How did you approach the faculties and researchers at the University of Ljubljana?
We held a series of information meetings at the faculties we assessed as offering mutually beneficial collaboration, and used the meetings to present our challenges and requirements. We also listened carefully to the presentations of the research teams’ capabilities.
We connect with faculties on the basis of information on the quality of the research team and their equipment and programmes. Responsiveness, adherence to the agreed deadlines and experience are all very important when deciding on collaboration.
We also occasionally work with students on the basis of the topics they are addressing in their doctoral, Master’s and undergraduate dissertations. We should point out that the majority of our experts at Gorenje studied at the University of Ljubljana.
How have your collaborations with the University of Ljubljana turned out?
Gorenje works most frequently with the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, followed by the Biotechnical Faculty and the Faculty of Electrical Engineering. Researchers can see the results of the collaboration in our products. I would like to highlight our collaboration with the group led by Professor Boltežar from the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering in Ljubljana, with which we have joined forces to resolve complex challenges relating to the dynamic response and stabilisation of washing machines. We also have a number of joint patents relating to this – in fact, we will be filing another one in the next few days. The outcome of the collaboration between faculty researchers and Gorenje’s experts is a washing machine that is one of the most stable on the market, which has enabled us to develop other functions and shorten washing times – all in the name of customer satisfaction.
How can companies and researchers find a common language? How should the two sides communicate with each other?
We have no problem communicating with researchers at the University of Ljubljana, as we have ten PhD holders at Gorenje who know precisely what the company needs or wants when it comes to appliance development.
So the advice would be: appoint a person who understands the “research language and the topic” for communicating with researchers. Is it most often researchers at the company that fill this role?
What else would you like to see become part of the process of collaboration with researchers and the University of Ljubljana?
I would like to see more collaboration between laboratories or research groups within a faculty. This would cut down on administration and enable a more integrated problem-solving process.
In your opinion, what needs to be changed and improved in the process of searching for the right staff, expertise and equipment at faculties (technology offers and expertise on websites, UL entry point, etc.)?
For most small companies that find it difficult to obtain information on the knowledge available at the university, a UL entry point would be a very welcome solution. Expertise and research areas organised in a more transparent way would also facilitate access for companies to the University of Ljubljana and its faculties.
What would you advise other companies to do to start developing innovations with the University of Ljubljana?
The knowledge and results that can be obtained from the University of Ljubljana are fully comparable with what is on offer abroad, but are considerably easier to access because of the proximity of the institution and the possibility of communicating directly with it. As a global company, Gorenje would like to see even stronger collaboration.