APEC News Release

Van Niemela Looks Forward to APEC 2021

Tuesday, Jul 07, 2020

By Teddy Durgin

In this crazy pandemic world, a lot of people are dealing with a lot of firsts. For many, this is the first time they've ever had to work from a home office. For others, it's the first time they've ever had to home school their kids while balancing professional commitments. For those working in the applied power electronics field, 2020 has marked the first time the annual, much anticipated APEC conference has ever had to cancel its in-person event.

Among those having to adjust to this "new norm" is this year's Exposition Co-Chair Van Niemela, Senior Design Manager at ABB's Integrated DC Power business in Dallas. "This was a shock to all of us," he remarked, when asked about the cancellation. "In 2006 when I was General Chair, we had to scramble to move it from New Orleans to Dallas after Hurricane Katrina hit. But that was easy, by comparison! Or at least our conference management service, Courtesy Associates, made it look that way."

He continued, "We're happy that we were able to publish most of [APEC 2020's] technical content. And thanks to the tireless efforts of SmithBucklin renegotiating contracts, plus many hours of discussions among the conference sponsors, we were able to minimize losses and finally offer substantial refunds to all participants."

Perhaps most disappointing of all was the fact that APEC 2020 was supposed to celebrate the conference's 35th anniversary. A lot of effort went for naught.

"In addition to publishing most of the content, we were also able to augment the publications with a selection of recordings from the Plenary, Technical and Industrial sessions in addition to a subset of the Professional Education Seminars," Niemela said. "However, the exposition, which I co-chair, is a different beast, relying heavily on face-to-face discussions between potential suppliers and customers. We did not see a good way to do this virtually this year and we offered full refunds to exhibitors. We’re now focused on making the APEC 2021 Exposition the excellent event that we come to expect."

Looking ahead, Niemela stressed that it is indeed not too early to start thinking about APEC 2021. The challenges of wrapping up APEC 2020 have caused some delay, of course. "But we're already actively planning for a successful APEC '21 in Phoenix next March," he insisted. "And in this planning cycle, we're including a clear contingency plan. We certainly hope to see everyone at APEC 2021, but we'll be better prepared if we have to deliver in a different format.”"

Indeed, events of this size typically must book facilities five years in advance. So, there does indeed remain the promise of things to come once the coronavirus runs its course. So many conferences, trade shows, and other events have been or are being canceled or postponed. Has Niemela and his colleagues sought advice or taken any sort of counsel from other associations, organizations or leaders in other industries in the same boat?

Niemela was quick to answer. "Two thirds of our sponsorship is the IEEE -- the largest professional society in the world -- which sponsors over 1,900 conferences each year!" he pointed out. "The other third of our sponsorship is by PSMA, a consortium of approximately 200 companies and individuals engaged in the power electronics business. Also our conference management service is SmithBucklin which manages conferences for a large number of organizations across the U.S. Therefore, we had a wealth of experience from the trade-show industry to help guide us through this difficult time."

And it helps to have a job to fall back on that keeps him busy and focused. Since 2016 at ABB, he has led a group of electrical, mechanical, and firmware engineers designing board-mounted bus converters used in computing, communications and industrial applications. For two years prior, Niemela was Technical Marketing Director for Inventronics, a global top-five manufacturer of LED lighting drivers for commercial and industrial applications.

From 2002 to 2013, he held multiple roles with Fairchild Semiconductor, including System Engineering Manager for the company's Technology Group where he defined new products for emerging markets and sponsored university research. He holds a Ph.D. in power electronics from Duke University where he specialized in magnetics.

For Niemela, APEC has become more than just a work responsibility. It's been an opportunity to meet with similar-minded people each year to celebrate a shared passion and vocation. "APEC is the largest annual gathering of power supply designers in North America," he stated. "And as technology keeps advancing, it's an invaluable opportunity to learn about the latest developments. The exceptional success of APEC is driven by a strong technical program coupled with a strong commercial exposition, a model other conferences attempt to replicate."

Niemela added, "The continuity of leadership is another key to APEC’s success, where volunteer members typically serve for several years on the Conference Planning Committee and/or Steering Committee, and SmithBucklin manages the conference year after year. On a personal level, yes, it's also a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with colleagues all across the industry."

APEC 2020's cancellation has Niemela in a reminiscing mood. He remembers back as a young graduate student, his Ph.D. advisor Tom Wilson invited him to attend his first APEC as a guest in his room. Niemela recalls. "The deal was I paid for my food, and he would pay for everything else. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity, but little did I know he snored rather loudly. Luckily for me, his son Tom Wilson Jr. was also at the conference. He took pity on me and, drawing on many years of experience, explained exactly how to plug my ears with available materials so I could sleep! I am forever grateful to both and was awake enough that the excitement of APEC -- and other experiences -- inspired me enough to make power electronics a life-long career."