DAYTON, OHIO — Emerson Electric opened its Helix Innovation Center here on the University of Dayton campus in an effort to create new ways of thinking. The Helix can be many things — a training center for contractors, wholesalers and reps; a showroom to wow customers; an engineering and design center; a collaborative space for all of those constituencies.

Emerson is making a total investment of $35 million in this new 40,000-sq.ft. innovation center over a five-year period. The Helix features full-scale simulated environments, including a working commercial kitchen, a two-story house, a grocery store, a data center and the whole building itself as a commercial building.

There are some big things happening in our industry right now and we are playing a lead role in many of them. – John Rhodes

The real impact on Emerson’s Refrigeration unit, however, will be to change how the division thinks about and approaches problems, said John Rhodes, president of Refrigeration at Emerson Climate Technologies. The Helix will give Refrigeration the ability to solve problems from multiple dimensions, Rhodes told Contracting Business.

After the center’s soft launch last December, they hosted sessions with third-party facilitators from Dayton’s technology think tank, the Wright Brothers Institute, about how they think about solving problems for customers. Engineers think they know the answers, Rhodes noted, based on parameters that can be measured. The sessions with WBI, however, showed that human comfort has as many as 25 dimensions and not all of them can be measured, such as the emotional reaction to the environment.

Rhodes is a disrupter and he mainly wants to disrupt his own operation. He noted that his boss, Emerson Executive Vice President Bob Sharp, is also a disrupter.

“There are some big things happening in our industry right now and we are playing a lead role in many of them,” Sharp said at the grand opening. “Initiatives like the connected home, the industrial Internet of Things, intelligent stores, new system architectures that can work with natural refrigerants, and ultra-efficient air conditioning systems. To stay on the forefront, our approach is to look at the entire environment our customers operate in, and this is why we have invested to create this facility.”

Rhodes said that when he took over Refrigeration, the unit was doing many things right, but they lacked focus and weren’t resulting in growth. Rhodes said that his approach would be to make 10-15 small investments, hoping that a couple of them will hit big.

He wants to attack high-value problems with high-value solutions. What’s high value? The customer determines that. For example, density in a commercial kitchen is a problem. There may be 20 to 30 different devices in close proximity that affect temperature and humidity of both the environment and the food. Instead of solving a single issue in isolation, such as the temperature in a refrigerated drawer, The Helix would allow Emerson to come up with a solution that attacks the problem from multiple dimensions. There’s one caveat, Rhodes said: customer service is most important to a restaurant, so restaurateurs will waste energy if it improves customer service.

Wild, Wild West

 The impact of changes in refrigerants mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency, complicated by energy mandates by the Department of Energy, have created the “wild, wild West,” Rhodes said.

“This is the biggest change in the refrigeration market in 50 years in terms of magnitude and the options that are available,” Rhodes said.

DOE wants changes in energy efficiency from 10%-50% while EPA is saying that it must be accomplished with refrigerants that have one-tenth the global warming potential.

The effort to make sense of it all is the impetus behind Emerson’s E360 series of seminars and magazines. E360 brings all of the interested parties together in an attempt to solve problems holistically, Rhodes said. 

David N. Farr, chairman and CEO of Emerson Electric, said at the grand opening that he had traveled to Allendorf, Germany, to meet with executives from the Viessmann Group to get their perspectives on refrigerant issues. Farr told Contracting Business during the open house that the German government is pressuring Viessmann to not only use natural refrigerants, such as propane, CO2 or ammonia, but to pick one and use it exclusively. It’s not that simple, Farr noted, with the correct solution depending upon the equipment and the application.

Carbon dioxide has done well in Europe, Rhodes noted, but it’s a mixed bag in the U.S. The gas’s higher pressure and higher equipment cost has slowed its adoption rate. While it conveys a good green message, the return on investment might not be there. That may be solved over time, but for now its high pressure requires a much more sophisticated contractor right at a time when the industry is experiencing a shortage of well-trained service technicians.

Currently, Rhodes said, CO2 is dominating 80 percent of the discussion but it accounts for five percent of the installations. Could it take 10 percent market share, 20 percent, or more? Perhaps, in five years’ time. Emerson is fully invested in CO2 platforms but it will take time for OEMs such as Hill Phoenix to solve all the problems.

Supermarkets often have a “break/fix” mentality and do not have comprehensive plans to change over to new refrigerants, Rhodes said. Emerson is trying to provide them with a “roadmap,” playing the role of consultant and laying out all of the options.

Rhodes believes the current turmoil has driven some of the old timers out of the business at a time when their expertise and experience is most needed. Bob Labbett, vice president, communications & channel marketing for Emerson Climate Technologies, said that too few trade schools are teaching refrigeration because the instructors don’t understand refrigeration. The E360 Forum that’s scheduled for mid-October is Tucson, Arizona, will attempt to address the industry’s workforce issue.

The shortage of experience makes the Internet of Things more important in identifying system faults and how to handle them. IoT can provide too much data so the alarms need to be analyzed, relevant information extracted out of them, and a way of managing the alarms developed. Atlanta-based Emerson Retail Solutions is writing algorithms that to help make those decisions. Rhodes estimates that 95 percent of alarms are not emergencies.

Data analysis will tell the refrigeration contractor or facility manager what needs to be handled immediately, such as safely shutting down one compressor and rebalancing the load across the rest of the rack. The compressor can be replaced later but food safety isn’t compromised.

Emerson will continue to simplify the architecture of its systems, Rhodes said, and produce high-efficiency, multi-refrigerant capable equipment containing connected and communicating electronics.