The innovative Norwegian production technology industry has its roots in a bygone era.
A century ago, the population of Norway was dispersed among remote fishing villages and hard-to-reach valley farmsteads. The country's rugged terrain and harsh climate limited communications, and people had to cope on their own by utilizing all available resources. Each large community had its own smithy, where blacksmiths invented and forged tools to suit whatever job needed to be done. Out of such circumstances emerged a resourceful, solution-oriented mindset which still characterizes the country's production technology industry today.
The ensuing industrial revolution saw smithies replaced by mechanical workshops. These were founded to fulfil one specific need of a local community, and ended up providing a broad repertoire of products. One example of this transition to modern mass production is H¯nefoss Verkt¯ifabrik. Established in 1900, the company spent its first 45 years producing diverse metal hand tools, bicycles, and presses for making skis. However, after 1945, it began to diversify into the manufacture of a wide range of moulded plastic products and components, taking advantage of in-house metalworking expertise and the availability of more sophisticated machinery. Today, the company's facilities boast state-of-the-art, fully automated production lines which utilize injection-moulding robot technology and hard plastic presses.
Cheap hydroelectric power has been a boon to Norway's process and manufacturing industries. It has also contributed to the recent trend toward the transformation of the country's natural resources into value-added products for export. Historically, the country has exported these resources as raw materials. Today, substantial deposits of metal ore and petroleum, coupled with expertise in moulding, forming and processing technologies, have resulted in an increasing range of finished goods.
Today's Industry: Filling a Niche
Norwegian production technology companies are adept at finding and filling niche requirements, as well as adapting to changing market demands quickly and effectively. For the rapidly evolving oil and gas industry, Norwegian exports include specialized products such as KvÊrner Eureka's subsea water pump systems and reinjection systems for produced water, and Arctos Industrier's steel and aluminium structures and machinery for onshore and offshore oil and gas installations.
Norway is also home to renowned suppliers of specialized aluminium components to the international automotive industry. These suppliers offer precision manufacturing and exacting quality, building on expertise gleaned, in part, from the defence and aerospace industries. Leading companies include Norsk Hydro subsidiaries Hydro Automotive, which delivers aluminium bumpers, crash boxes and structural components to clients such as Audi, and Hydro Aluminium Fundo, one of Europe's foremost manufacturers of vehicle wheels. One of Fundo's biggest clients is BMW, for which it makes aluminium hubcaps. Other European market leaders include the Raufoss Group, which recently won an order to supply 1.5 million aluminium suspension and steering column components annually to General Motors Europe, and FIBO, which specializes in die-cast aluminium components and engine parts. FIBO clients include Saab, Scania and Volvo. Such reference lists are good indicators of Norwegian companies' ability to create successful working relationships with international customers and partners.
Norwegian manufacturers are also active in the electronics industry, offering engineering, manufacturing and other services, as well as systems, components and parts for components. One company, Polimoon, provides one-stop service for component design, mould manufacturing, painting and printing. Another Norwegian company, Kitron, has a network of subsidiaries that work in tandem to supply industrial and military customers with complete electronics products and modules, including design, assembly, purchasing, logistics and testing.
Another niche sector for Norwegian production technology exports is packaging and logistics. Polimoon is a major player in this field as well, manufacturing moulded plastic canisters and drums for industrial purposes, often from recyclate. It also produces a wide range of packaging machines, returnable transit packaging, crates, and trays for the food and beverage, fisheries and aquaculture industries. On the transport logistics front, Cargoscan is a world leader in weighing and dimensioning solutions for warehouses and freight depots, with over 700 sorting systems installed globally. The company's unique scanning systems can speedily and accurately measure objects of almost any shape, offering customers reliable dimensional data and improved cost-effectiveness. One of the company's premier clients is international airfreight handler TNT Express Worldwide.
The Norwegian production technology industry has a history of devising cutting-edge solutions to manufacturing challenges in order to raise efficiency. Norway's expertise in information and communications technology (ICT), especially software development, is helping manufacturers to get the best performance out of new and existing machinery. To achieve maximum production line control, especially in small and medium-sized plants, there is a strong move by Norwegian manufacturers towards the implementation of "field bus" automation in which software and hardware, including sensing and measuring equipment, are integrated into a digitized network that can monitor every detail of the production process. On a larger scale, companies such as Norwegian ship's gear manufacturer Ulstein Brattvaag, now part of Rolls-Royce Marine, are opting for new flexible manufacturing systems (FMS) that allow production to be regulated quickly and effectively. Ulstein Brattvaag's FMS for the production of hydraulic winches and deck machinery went into operation in October 1999 and is one of the largest systems of its kind in Europe. The company can now monitor and fine-tune production at the plant between product lines, thereby increasing cost-effectiveness.
A number of Norwegian companies have also made significant advances in the development and application of industrial robots. Robot-Teknikk, for example, specializes in robotic production systems, while global shipyard technology supplier TTS Automation has created the Combi Line robotic system for cutting and welding steel sections. This unique system allows operators to program machines offline without deactivating them. Another innovation is SM Remote Systems' Buster robot, which is specially designed for monitoring and search activities at sea, and can operate at depths as low as 500 metres. Buster is currently being used by fisheries in areas as diverse as Scotland and Chile to monitor fish stocks and conditions. A version of Buster has also been developed specially for use in bomb disposal, and the Norwegian Ministry of Defence has units at the ready in case of terrorist activity.
Staying Ahead with R&D
A number of Norwegian research institutes are actively involved in production technology programmes, notably various departments within SINTEF (Scandinavia's largest contract research organization) and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Typically these organizations collaborate with private enterprise to maintain pioneering work in advanced technologies. For example, SINTEF's Materials Technology division is participating in an ongoing project with member companies of the Norwegian Composite Forum to develop plastic composite materials and components for specific applications, notably offshore use. SINTEF Casting and Metal, meanwhile, is working in association with industry on the mathematical modelling of industrial processes such as the casting, forming and heat treatment of light metals. At NTNU, researchers are exploring the further use of FMS systems, including robots and automated machinery, to enhance export competitiveness, as part of the Productivity 2005 programme funded by the Research Council of Norway.
Norwegian production technology companies also invest heavily in in-house R&D, and a number have spearheaded the development of plastic composite materials. Raufoss Composites is one company that has created materials that are as strong as steel but much lighter, more versatile and cheaper to produce. Another innovator, E-Plast, delivers composite cellular phone bodies to Ericsson, which is renowned for its ultra light and compact mobile phones.
Productive & Eco-efficient
Norway places a premium on protecting the environment, and companies must abide by strict regulations on production emissions and hazardous waste. Areas in which companies are implementing additional steps to improve the environment are in process technologies and the manufacture of fully recyclable products or products made from recycled materials. On the factory floor, adequate fume extraction and filtration improve both worker health and a manufacturer's environmental profile. Lincoln Electric Norway specializes in mobile or centralized low and high-vacuum systems that extract fumes directly from the production line before they enter the operator's breathing zone. Fifty per cent of the company's output is exported to plants in China, Russia, Taiwan and the Philippines - high-demand regions for environment-friendly production equipment.
For process technologies to best save money, energy and materials, products must be designed from the very beginning to be recycled or "upcycled" - a process that ends in materials with improved, rather than degraded, quality compared to the original materials. One Norwegian front-runner in this area is the HÂg furniture company. Committed to reducing the amount of non-renewable energy used in its manufacturing processes, HÂg even upcycles one of its popular product lines - the Scio task chair - from plastic bottle caps. To simplify recycling, each component in a HÂg chair is marked with the type of material from which it is made. Like a number of other Norwegian companies, HÂg is paying close attention to the market demands of countries such as Germany, where there is a growing, influential, consumer-driven movement to recycle all materials used in production. Plasto Technology's shopping trolley is also made from recycled plastic and can be recycled in turn, while Industriplast forms plastic waste into top-quality protective casings for electricity and telecommunications cables in buildings. TH!NK Nordic's electric vehicle, Think City - the world's first to be mass produced - features a recyclable lightweight plastic body that is strong enough to withstand the impact of a hammer without sustaining any damage.
The international production technology industry is developing at a fast pace. To remain competitive, more and more Norwegian companies are forming strategic networks of alliances and industrial partnerships, both at home and abroad. The aim is to share key knowledge and participate in co-production where it makes economical and logistical sense. Partnerships are being formed across the board, spanning different sectors and geographic borders. One example is the partnership between ammunition supplier Nammo Raufoss and automotive supplier Hydro Aluminium for the development of aluminium safety roll bars - activated by explosives - for the seats of convertible BMWs.
Working together, the Norwegian production technology sector is well-placed to meet the manufacturing and environmental challenges of the future, and to sustain Norway's reputation as a centre of innovation for advanced manufacturing solutions and top-quality products and components.
By Roderick Craig