Thu, Mar 22, 2012

Success Stories

On a recent trip to the south of Sweden, UK-based freelance writer and photographer Matt Bailey visited the headquarters of one of the country’s best-known industrial brands to discover how it’s using the latest U.S.-built CNC machine tool technology to make product prototypes.

As a foreign visitor to the area, I can’t help wondering which came first, Huskvarna, the town, or Husqvarna, the company? Actually, I’m reliably informed that it was Husqvarnaan, the river, and it was because of the river that the town and the factory came to be on the side of a snowy hill adjoining Jönkoping (pronounced Yon-sherping), one of Sweden’s many pretty lakeside settlements.

The prosperity of Husqvarna, the company, and – ipso facto – that of Huskvarna, the town, owes a great deal to a royal decree passed by 17th century Swedish King, Karl XI.

In 1689, Karl gave permission for arms manufacture to commence in Jönkoping: a government run enterprise to equip the national Army. One hundred years later, the energy hungry operation was moved (lock, stock and barrel, one might say) to the foot of the aforementioned snowy hill, where the fast running, icy waters of the Husqvarnaan could be used to power the factory.

Although weapons manufacturing continued at the Husqvarna plant until 1970, in the intervening 300 years the company expanded its product range and its manufacturing expertise: In 1872, it introduced the first sewing machine. A little later, it employed its foundry and casting facilities to make meat mills and ovens – 12 million in the case of the former, 2 million of the latter. In 1896, the townsfolk witnessed the first Husqvarna bicycle, and a few years after that, the surrounding hills reverberated to the sound of a Husqvarna motorcycle.

Almost 50 years later, the company applied its expertise in two-stroke engine design to launch its first chainsaw. Rather late for the lumberjacks of the Jönkoping match-making industry – most of their tree felling had to be done manually – the primitive tool nevertheless marked the beginning of a new era for the company.

The motorcycle business was eventually sold to Italian company Cagiva, but chainsaw manufacturing is still a core business of Husqvarna AB, now part of the worldwide Electrolux Corporation.

Design & Development

These days, Husqvarna chainsaws are exported to almost all of the world’s industrialised nations, the largest single market being the power-tool obsessed USA.

Wherever they’re eventually shipped, every Husqvarna chainsaw starts life as a prototype. From the time a saw is conceived in the design department, it takes between two and four years for it to reach production. Something like 40 to 50 months are spent in design and development, where components are tested and redesigned, and incremental improvements are made until the product is fit for sale.

The Experimental Machining Shop

Inexplicably, Husqvarna’s experimental machining shop – part of the company’s R&D department, and a stopping-off point for all new products – is on the first floor of one its large, redbrick campus buildings. Heavy presses, CNC machine tools and other accoutrements typical of a modern engineering workshop take up almost all the available space.

It’s not just its name that makes Husqvarna almost impossible to separate from its eponymous town: Just over 1,700 of the company’s total 2,100 strong workforce live in Huskvarna. In charge of the shop is one of them: Peter Gustavsson, R&D Manager and 28-year veteran of the company.

Gustavsson manages a small team of 12 people, including machine operator and programmer Martin Johansson, who trained in the company’s die-casting department before moving across to R&D. He’s been in the department for 4 years, and still considers himself a newcomer.

Johansson’s particular responsibility – the company’s latest acquisition – sits at the farther most end of the workshop: a grey and red Haas Automation CNC Mini Mill that the company purchased several months ago.

Drawings and Catia files of parts for new products arrive daily from the development department. Most are fairly small parts, designed to be machined from magnesium alloys and, occasionally, steel.

“Parts are typically cut from solid,” says Johansson, “so metal removal rates were very important when the company was looking to buy a new machining centre.”

The company also wanted a small machine – with a small footprint, that is –but with a lot of performance. The importance of small physical size was all too obvious, by virtue of the fact that the machine shop, as already mentioned, is situated on the first floor of the building.

To emphasise the logistical difficulties involved in installing anything other than small machines, Gustavsson walked me across the room to the freight elevator, the only practical means of getting plant equipment into the workshop.

“There aren’t many small machines on the market,” he says, “certainly not with the specification and the price of the Haas Mini Mill. When we realised we could probably get it into the shop without having to destroy any walls, we were very interested.”

Gustavsson first heard about Haas three years ago, through Jönkoping-based Swedish distributor Edström.

“If the Mini Mill hadn’t been available, we would have had to buy a larger machine than we needed,” he says, “and we would have had all the associated problems of getting a large machine up to the first floor of the building. As it happened, we brought the Mini Mill up in the elevator.”

Johansson adds that the speed of the control was an important consideration when they were looking at different machines.

“The Haas CNC is so quick,” he says. “We’re creating large files – sometimes 10 MB or more. Cycle times can be anything from 2 hours to 3 days.”

Like all R&D departments, Husqvarna’s is a covert place. What to me and many other untrained eyes might look like an insignificant part, may well be a closely guarded company secret – an innovation the competition would be only too happy to examine in the pages of a magazine like this one.

Hence, my requests for finished parts to photograph are politely sidestepped.

“The department also makes development parts for the company’s range of strimmers (string trimmers) and masonry cutters,” says Johansson. “Many of these parts used to be sub-contracted to local companies. Now that the department has the Mini Mill, they can be produced much more quickly and much more cost-effectively.”

What’s more, if a part needs modifying, the R&D department can bring it straight back and have it re-machined.

“It speeds up the entire development process, and keeps the overall costs down,” adds Gustavsson.

The chainsaw industry is like many others – including the machine tool industry. It isn’t just about having a bright idea, it’s about how quickly you can develop that idea, how soon you can bring it to market and the price at which you do so.

The Haas Mini Mill is a very good example. It’s been developed with all of the performance and capability of a much larger, more expensive high-speed milling machine, but in a small and affordable package. For the hundreds of companies around the world who have already invested in one, it’s a valuable combination. For Husqvarna, it’s about speed and flexibility and, ultimately, the ability to stay one step ahead of the competition.

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