Manufacturing and sales
The story of skf’s establishment and first years has been told many times. Sven Wingquist, at the time a thirty-year-old plant engineer responsible for repairs and maintenance at Gamlestadens Fabriker, was dissatisfied with the performance of the ball bearings then in use. These were rigid ball bearings, imported from Germany, and if the long shafts on the machinery in a textile mill were the least bit misaligned, the ball bearings would become overheated and break down, bringing production to a costly halt. In spring 1907, Wingquist presented a breakthrough – a double row self-aligning ball bearing with a spherical raceway in the outer ring, shared by both rows of balls. This allowed the inner ring to align freely in relation to the outer ring, with no negative impact on the function of the bearing. The new bearing solved the problem associated with misalignment of the shafts and thus did away with the frequent production stops. Self-alignment was particularly useful in the less-than-perfect machinery of the times and in buildings with subsidence problems, which was the case at Gamlestadens Fabriker, since much of the land on which Göteborg has been built is clay. The importance of the spherical ball bearing is based on its ability to compensate for these shortcomings and thus raise the level of quality in the machinery into which it is incorporated.7
The two men who owned and managed Gamlestadens Fabriker at the time, thirty-seven year old Axel Carlander and Knut J:son Mark, his senior by a few years, encouraged Wingquist’s experimentation. From an early stage, they provided him with facilities at the textile plant. On 16 February 1907, at the statutory meeting of skf, the share capital was set at 110,000 kronor. Gamlestaden subscribed for 82 shares at 1,000 kronor per share, Wingquist subscribed for 20 shares, which he was to receive as remuneration for the patent, and the Carlander and Mark families for the remaining eight. In autumn 1907, the first separate building for the new enterprise was constructed at Säve Strandgata, on the piece of property Gamlestadens Fabriker had purchased from the city.
Wingquist brought the first workers from Gamlestadens Fabriker. A number of them were active in the trade union, and a local shop union was set up three days before the factory began operations in 1907. The shop union has generally been able to assert its interests in dialogue with management, not least thanks to strong trade union leadership. Both parties have tried, whenever possible, to resolve disputes at local level, and there has been very little local industrial action as well, although the unions did participate in the national industrial actions during the twentieth century.8
Wingquist appears to have taken a firm grip on operations from the very outset. Extant correspondence from these years indicates that he devoted intensive efforts to working up the Swedish market, with the very first customers including asea and Jonsereds Fabriker. He was also quick to realize that the really great potential lay in a market beyond Swedish borders.
The order books began to fill up so fast that by 1909 it had become clear to the board of directors that there would have to be plans for larger scale, more rational production facilities, because ‘manufacturing can be done less expensively at a larger factory arranged for mass production’.9 As early as 1910, 80 – 85 per cent of skf’s production was for the export market. The figures also indicate dramatic increases in productivity and declining manufacturing costs. In 1911, the number of bearings per worker and working day was 2.1, while by 1914 it had increased to 2.7. In addition, quality had also improved, as can be seen in the longer life and greater load carrying capacity of skf ball bearings.10
It was also important to ensure that skf patented the invention – various other parties were eager to copy skf ball bearings. A Swedish patent was obtained on 6 June 1907 on the double-row spherical ball bearing, and patents in a large number of major industrial nations soon followed.11 In 1912, a separate patent department was set up at skf to monitor possible patent violations.
Initially, the steel balls were purchased from Germany, but in order to ensure quality control, the company adopted a decision in 1910 to begin production of these balls in Göteborg.12 Adjacent property was purchased, and the factory at Artillerigatan was rapidly extended. Special machinery, not available on the general market, was needed for ball bearing production. It was either imported from Germany or purchased from the Swedish Lidköpings Mekaniska Verkstad.13
When the skf steel ball facilities were constructed in 1911, a decision was also adopted to build a machine shop in order to be able to construct more of this special equipment in-house. Later, when skf began to expand abroad, the subsidiaries were equipped with machinery produced at these Göteborg facilities.
In autumn 1911, the board of directors also adopted a decision to set up a research laboratory in Göteborg, mainly because of the need to develop methods for inspecting the steel being purchased from various steel mills in Sweden. This laboratory came to be described as the most advanced private research laboratory for metallography in Sweden.14 Under Uno Forsberg – later to become managing director of skf – the laboratory used the most stringent scientific methods and applied the results of state-of-the-art international theoretical research.15 One skf director summed up the operations of the enterprise nicely when he described his company as follows: ‘We build on a foundation of rational production of high-class quality products based on ongoing research …’ 16