Pierre Gandel, CEO of the Swiss Sonceboz Group, was recently awarded the Marius Lavet prize as Engineer-Inventor of the year for his work on electromagnetism and mechatronics.
With his high school diploma in his pocket, Pierre Gandel set out to study sciences, with the emphasis on micromechanics and microtechniques. He studied at Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Mécanique et des Microtechniques (ENSMM), a French school of engineering located in Besançon in eastern France, and was awarded a Master’s in Applied Mechanics followed by a Master’s in Advanced Studies. He then concluded his studies by writing his thesis. Pierre Gandel’s love affair with electromagnetism, the science based on Maxwell’s equations applied to very specific magnetic fields, started when he met a well-known scientist in the field: ‟I was lucky enough to meet Dr Claude Oudet, who taught me my job. Since then I’ve created new types of electrical circuits based on electromagnetism,” he explains In short, Pierre Gandel defines this branch of science as: ‟everything that transforms an electrical signal into a mechanical movement” – that’s the central facet of the science of electromagnetism”. After starting his career at Portescap, a Swiss motor micro-tech specialist, he then co-founded in 1990 Moving Magnet Technologies (MMT), a company which undertakes research in the field of electromagnetism. MMT was acquired in 1995 by the Sonceboz Group, where he subsequently rose to become CEO. However, Gandel stands out from the crowd with his very special vision of what innovation means: ‟Innovation is a successful invention, one that has made an impact on the market. It’s a technological solution to a problem encountered by the customer”. In other words innovation does not lie dormant in a cupboard, it is all about having an idea that can be commercialised, one that meets a real market need.
The disruptive idea?
Before going into detail about his innovation, Gandel, whose name appears on 34 classes of patents, stresses the collaborative nature of innovation: ‟No-one every really invents anything on his/her own; there’s always a team behind an innovation”. So what exactly is the innovation for which Pierre Gandel and his colleagues at MMT were awarded the Marius Lavet prize? To quote the actual patent document, it is a ‘position sensor, designed in particular for detecting a steering column torsion’ – ‟our greatest global standard”, enthuses the inventor. The position sensor is the key widget behind power-assisted driving systems. It measures the steering force applied by the driver and passes this on to the sensitivity control on the electrical power steering.
Today, all vehicles use power-assisted steering and this is where the position sensor plays a vital role. Without sensors there would be no power steering as it is the sensors that ensure a proportionate reaction from the electric motor. Until recently the sensors were ‟resistant, with actual contact”. Now however, Pierre Gandel and his team have developed a ‟contactless position sensor, which is magnetic, multipolar, which lasts a long time and is very reliable”. The basic aim here is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Gandel also stresses the security aspect of steering columns. ‟You need to be sure of the signal because the power-assisted steering depends on it. Of course the driver wants to be sure that his/her vehicle has a reliable system. If s/he feels a jolt when handling the steering wheel, this will be due to the sensor’s lack of precision”.
So how does this affect us?
Pierre Gandel’s innovation is tucked away inside a wide range of electrical devices and components. Actuators, motors and electromagnetic sensors are found all over the place in the automobile industry, and in other manufacturing sectors as well. Panasonic’s electric razors, for example, use an actuator produced by MMT. Today Pierre Gandel claims that using his innovative products helps to reduce CO2 emissions in the automobile sector. ‟In all vehicles, most of the functions that are ‘under the bonnet’, i.e. the motor functions, are becoming electric. These include actuators, small motors and sensors under the bonnet, so in future there will be lower petrol consumption and less pollution.” The Sonceboz boss cites as an example a product his company developed for the BMW automobile brand: an actuator for an electronic valve lift which enables savings of ‟3 to 5% of vehicle fuel consumption”, thus helping to reduce CO2 emissions.
And what does the future hold?
Of course, connected vehicles or “autonomous vehicles” as Pierre Gandel calls them, are a major playing field for his inventions. ‟The next big revolution in the area of sensors and motors will be in the automobile world with the advent in ten to fifteen years of the autonomous vehicle, the cars of the future, and this is the area we’re working on today,” he reveals. Equipped with many sensors, motors, and actuators, tomorrow’s cars will be increasingly automated. ‟What might seem unthinkable today will be perfectly possible in the very near future. When you want to phone or reply to your emails while driving because you’re stuck in a traffic jam, the vehicle itself will be able to take over the driving thanks to the sensors, motors, and actuators. Then we’ll be able to go about our business in peace.”