In the early 1900s the maintenance engineer at a textile plant in Göteborg, Sweden, found himself puzzling over a problem. The land on which the facility was built had a tendency to shift due to weather conditions, which was affecting the rigidity of the central drives that powered the plant’s machinery — wreaking havoc on its bearings, in particular. One of his solutions is found in his sketchbook from that time: a “self-aligning” ball bearing that would automatically adjust to the area’s malleable topography.
“His name was Sven Wingquist,” according to Colin Roberts, who is vice president of The SKF Group’s technical press, “and he took his idea to the factory’s owners, who immediately saw its value and set aside space for him to develop his design.”
The young engineer began by producing standard bearings for the company’s use that were superior to what they were purchasing from outside sources, and in February of 1907 this led to the founding of SKF — which stood for Svenska Kullager Fabriks or, quite succinctly, “Swedish Ball Bearing Company” — by two of the company’s owners, along with Wingquist. But it was the self-aligning ball bearing, a unique invention in April of that year, that propelled the company to staggering international growth.
The company quickly gained traction, with branch offices opened in France and Germany, and agents appointed in Finland, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, Austria, and Australia the following year. Then, in 1909, the principals undertook an arduous journey across the ocean to the United States to form the subsidiary SKF Ball Bearing Company in New York. “And this was at a time when such a trip would’ve taken six weeks to two months,” Roberts points out, “so they must have been quite assured of the company’s capabilities.”
That same sense of confidence and embracing opportunity has guided SKF’s monumental growth in the near-century since its founding, and it now owns some 150 subsidiary companies, 105 production facilities, and employs nearly 40,000 worldwide. It is organized into three distinct divisions — Industrial, Automotive, and Service — and it is well known as a leading global supplier of products and customer solutions in the areas of rolling bearings, seals, mechatronics, services, and lubrication systems. SKF’s main competencies include technical support, maintenance services, condition monitoring, and training, and the company also holds an increasingly important position in the market for linear motion products, as well as high precision bearings, spindles, and spindle services for the machine tool industry and lubrication systems.
Still, many of the company’s activities over the years come as a surprise, including its production of experimental cars in 1926 under a now-familiar name — AB Volvo. “In 1915 SKF had decided to market one of its bearing lines under the name ‘Volvo,’ which is Latin for ‘I roll,’” Roberts explains, “but it then shelved the product and its trademark, only to resurrect the name in 1926 as a subsidiary company. It actually manufactured a trial series of 10 automobiles before AB Volvo became independent of SKF in 1935.”
Another interesting advent involves the company’s “theory for calculating bearing life,” which was published by ISO and adopted as a world standard in 1947. That standard has stood the test of time, remaining in place for nearly 60 years until it was recently modified by SKF and re-adopted by ISO after a three-year review.
Having spent nearly 25 years with the company, Roberts is currently involved in spreading the word about its range of capabilities via “press days” held in countries such as the United States, China, India, and Japan, among others. “We want to inform and educate magazine editors and potential customers that our abilities go far beyond bearings,” he says. “It goes on to quite complicated solutions that may or may not involve bearings. We can supply medical systems solutions, for instance, involving our linear motion products and electronics, to give the end user more than just a bearing from a catalog. So we’re looking at what they want, and we’re designing solutions for their problems based on their input.”
Now approaching its 100th anniversary, SKF is positioning itself as a “knowledge engineering company,” according to Roberts, “with expertise in bearings and seals, lubrication systems, and in mechatronics systems as well. We also have a range of services that allow us to help process and manufacturing plants reduce maintenance time and increase uptime and profitability. With our vast experience, and all of the technologies we’ve developed, we can go to a wide variety of markets and say ‘What do you need from us, what problems are you having?’ And we can then design solutions to help them be more competitive.”
One example of SKF’s dedication to innovation can be found in the recent development of its “18k” (for karat) concept gearbox (see the article “Gearitng Up for Improved Performance” in the October 2005 issue of the magazine). In this R&D exercise a team of SKF rotating equipment technology engineers designed and built a compact “size 250” concept gearbox that dramatically exceeds the reliability and performance of larger industry standard gearboxes; weighing 15 to 20 percent less, and with 12 to 25 percent less volume.
The goal? “To prove that it’s possible,” Roberts says, “and to issue a friendly challenge for companies — gear manufacturers, in this case — to join us in developing new technologies and approaches from which we all can benefit.”
MORE INFO To learn more about SKF’s past, present, and future go to www.skf.com.