The SVIA story begins in 1997 when the Husqvarna Company has a problem with a subcontractor. One of their machines isn’t working properly.
Husqvarna employee Ari Kesti offers to visit the company to try to solve the problem. He is 24 years old and his highest academic qualification is a two-year high school level technical education.
Ari has only worked for a few months at Husqvarna, but he already has a reputation for being kind of an inventor. Ari comes to Husqvarna straight from his military service. He liked military life so much that he was considering a career as a professional officer, but when he was offered a placement in Boden in northern Sweden, he declined.
– It’s too cold there.
Parts on a floor
The company Ari visits is contracted to deliver small machine-mounted valves to the Husqvarna Company. When he arrives, there is no machine, just parts on the floor. The subcontractor has been unable to assemble the complicated machine.
During his short time at Husqvarna, Ari has managed to solve a number of technical problems and has even built a few machines of his own which get used in production.
Ari loads the parts into his car and drives home. He puts everything in his chicken coop. No birds live there any more.
It’s chilly in the chicken coop and the lighting is not optimal, but late in the evenings after work, evenings which usually turn into night, Ari assembles the machine. Then he drives it back to the subcontractor.
They are very impressed, but they still have a problem:
-How does the darn thing work?
Evenings and weekends
No one at the company feels up to the challenge of operating the small but complex machine. They ask Ari if he would consider running it alongside his regular work at Husqvarna. Ari accepts and works evenings, nights and weekends for what he in hindsight calls a “symbolic salary”. It leads to several other jobs for him.
He finds new solutions to various production challenges and builds a number of new machines. Then he gets an offer to work ten hours a day for one year. There’s one condition: that he resign from Husqvarna Company.
250,000 SEK per component
Ari ponders over the production processes. He sees that processing machines that have more tools, say 10-15 spindles, can work on eight parts simultaneously. He counts 15 machines running in three shifts, with people feeding things into the machines every three to four seconds.
He questions the traditional bowl feeding of components using a vibrating bowl. He questions the cost of all the unique solutions, something like 700,000 Swedish crowns for the first component in a machine that will handle 40 components. In one case, he calculates the cost to be 250,000 crowns per component.
A dead end
Ari imagines it must be possible to automate more and to use a feeding solution that doesn’t involve an expensive, vibrating bowl feeder.
How would a standard industrial robot manage the task? It can be freely programmed, perhaps with a kind of fixture and some sort of pathway for the pallet, but there would be a lot of fixtures. 40 components times 50 pallets at 1500 crowns apiece.
No, that didn’t seem like the right way forward.
This called for real innovation.
Ari knows that camera systems are used in robotics. Could that be an idea? Would a robot with “eyes” be able to pick the right components, even if they come in no particular order on a conveyor belt? In that case it would be possible for the same machine to process many different components.
But how would the components get into the machine? Could the robot be programmed to pick directly from the pallets?
Ari realizes that the technology he’s imagining don’t exist. Vision systems exist, and industrial robots and programs exist. But no one has yet done what Ari has dreamed up. Ari buys a robot, bolts it to the floor and hires Kenneth, another inventor. They work well together and start looking for a camera system.
It’s 1999 and Ari learns two things: how the robot works and that the camera he has in mind does not actually exist. Existent vision systems will guide the robot to the parts, but don’t help pick them up. The systems are complicated and impossible for a non-specialist to handle. They wouldn’t work in your average factory. No one would have the skills necessary to operate them.
A light at the window
Through his search for new solutions and a vision system that doesn’t yet exist, Ari builds up a lot of contacts.
After a visit with a professor at Linköping University, he remembers a sign he saw on a building next to his old high school back home in Huskvarna: Industrial Vision Systems.
He arrives at the bottom of the hill from his former high school at six o’clock and sees that a light is on at Industrial Vision Systems, so he drives up and knocks on the door.
Come back on Monday
The man who opens it is called Ronny. Ronny does not work at Industrial Vision Systems, and he informs Ari that they’re not in at the moment. But he says he also works with vision systems, with a different company.
–Come back on Monday and see Henrik Saldner from Optronic, Ronny says.
The Monday meeting is a success. Ari’s idea seems feasible, but will require a month of research that will cost 50,000 crowns.
Sleeping on a pallet rack
A creative and energetic person can accomplish a lot in a month. Ari works constantly, often sleeping in a pallet rack next to the robot, waking up and continuing where he had left off the night before. He puts in an average of 540 hours per month.
– It was an exciting time. We felt that we were creating something amazing.
Ari makes sketches of the mechanical construction which eventually becomes Multiflex, and approaches a potential customer, Stacke Metal Factory.
Ari returns to his friends at Optronic with good news:
– I just sold two. Let’s do this!
Competing with low-wage labor countries
A few months later, the team is testing the newly built robotic cell and Ari realizes they’re on to something big. His invention could change many things considered to be inevitable parts of the industry, like where production is concerned that countries such as Sweden and the US cannot compete with low-wage labor countries. At countless factories around the world, people feed components into machines, a job both mind numbing and inefficient.
Stacke Metal Company’s competitors, who had seen what the new robotic cells achieved at Stacke, also get in touch. This is just the beginning. Ari sells six additional cells the first year.
Premiere in Germany
Ari then contacts all the industries in northern Europe, and installs the first Multiflex cell in Germany. The year is 2001 and SVIA hires their first salesman in Germany.
At the same time Ari and Kenneth start developing a three-dimensional camera. Picking directly from the pallet is something that has interested them for three years.
Henrik Saldner at Optronic did his PhD in optical metrology and vibration and has already developed his own three-dimensional vision sensor. Together they try to further develop the method to be able to pick components directly from a pallet.
They succeed so well that they’re able to exhibit a prototype at the Hannover Fair in 2002.
Ready but expensive
The robot manages to actually pick the components directly from the pallet, and visitors to the fair are impressed. But so far nobody has started cheering. The time has come for the technology, but it’s too expensive. Neither Ari’s team nor his customers want to make the necessary investment. But things are going well.
In 2002 SVIA has 16 employees and moves a year later into workshop number five in Hovslätt, south of Jönköping. In 2010 SVIA moves to larger premises and more employees are hired. The first US facility in Texas is completed in 2015.
The Holy Grail
Ari is still searching for his Holy Grail. His goal is to build a cell with a robot that can pick straight from the pallet. Today SVIA already has this magical ability, but because the spirit of innovation is paired with a desire for perfection, it’s not yet ready for an official launch. The gripper still needs further development. Magnets, suction cups and other technical solutions are not yet accurate enough to pick up every kind of component when they are in disarray on a conveyor belt.
The challenge remains. Ari isn’t a quitter. To be continued.