HISTORY OF TECHNOLOGY. The small workshop manufactured everything from waffle irons to graders. But by investing in excavator manufacturing, it grew into Sweden’s most profitable engineering company, and became known for “Åkermansandan”, before the 1990s recession was the beginning to the end.
Even today you can see one of the company’s very first products: the spire on Eslöv’s church, delivered to the church building in November 1890. The company was then just started by foreman Lars-Petter Åkerman from Hyby, who bought a smithy in Eslöv and converted it into Åkermans. Foundry and Mechanical Workshop.
Under Lars-Petter, mainly cast iron windows and equipment for breweries and distilleries were manufactured. But already in 1897 he died of illness, 49 years old, and his wife Hanna Åkerman had to take over the shaky company. No easy situation for a widow with five children at the end of the 19th century:
“The entire responsibility for both the family and the company fell on her, and she was forced to mobilize all she had of energy and energy in the struggle for existence (…) And the conditions that Swedish society at that time faced single mothers, were relentlessly harsh,” writes the economist and corporate historian Sven Rydenfelt in the book From tower spiers to excavators – a company’s fate and adventure for 100 years.
But on his deathbed, Lars-Petter had asked two friends, the wholesaler Wilhelm Sonesson and the provincial doctor Nils Kulneff, to help Hanna take care of the company and the children. The bankruptcy was close several times, but together the trio managed to get the company back on its feet. During the first decades of the 20th century, a small but varied production of steam boilers, peat machines, household utensils and whatever the customers wanted was carried out.
The money ran out
Once, the workshop even received an order for a private submarine, ordered by the tailor Ola Andersson. This was an eccentric and technically gifted gentleman – he is said to have constructed a coffee pot that played “La Paloma” when poured – which paid 1,545 kronor in advance and contributed with its own detailed specifications. Preserved drawings show that the submarine would be ten meters long and two tons heavy, and built in three sections: a cylindrical one in the middle with a hatch and glass windows, and conical sections at the ends.
When the hull was ready and was to be equipped with a spark plug motor, however, Andersson’s money had run out. The empty submarine shell was left in the workshop yard for years, before the completely sonic was buried.
When motoring began to gain momentum in the 1920s, the road network needed to be upgraded, and the energetic new director Bernt Lorenz Åkesson steered the business towards the production of construction tools such as graders and road rollers.
Still, it took a good while into the 30s before people became interested in excavators, which at this time were badly seen by many. Out on the buildings, the few ling foxes were called “bread thieves”, because they took jobs and supplies from men with picks and shovels. During the state emergency work that was launched during the Depression of the 1930s, contractors were often forbidden to use excavators – roads and ditches were to be built by hand, thus creating jobs for more unemployed people.
Despite this, director Åkesson finally decided to give the engineers the go-ahead: Åkermans was to develop an excavator, and in 1939 it was ready. An eight-tonne heavy digger with a 39-horsepower kerosene engine and the name Åkerman 300, where the figure represented the bucket volume in liters.
The first copy was delivered to Sjöbo Cement Foundry, and was soon followed by more. Åkerman 300 was a sales success and was the first mass-produced Swedish excavator – although the term “Swedish” is used generously in this case. Broadly speaking, it was a copy of the British machine Rapier, which in turn was manufactured under license from American Marion.
But Åkerman gradually developed his own and improved ling diggers. Their early models were relatively simple constructions with wire winches that were operated manually, with brakes and clutches directly connected to the levers. Gradually, the heavy-duty controls were replaced with servo-assisted levers that required much less manual power, and the wire winch – which was originally driven directly with gears – was fitted with a hydraulic gear that adapted the power to the tasks. During heavy digging, the speed was automatically reduced in favor of strength.
Comfort was also improved. The cab was separated from the noisy engine room by a sound-absorbing partition, and is said to have had a decibel level equivalent to that of a more comfortable passenger car from the same period.
Alone in Sweden
Business flourished, and Åkermans Verkstad was at the forefront in more respects than just mechanical engineering. In the 1940s, a profit-sharing system was introduced, where all employees received shares in the company’s financial success.
This was largely the case in Sweden, and the system was controversial. Both unions and employers’ organizations considered it an illegal means of competition, but Åkesson stood his ground. With profit sharing, own apprenticeship school, and internal recruitment to senior positions in the company, a strong cohesion was created which became known as Åkermansandan.
“Yes, then we were a big family and it was in Eslöv that all the decisions were made on the spot, not by any big brother anywhere else in Sweden,” says an old Åkerman worker in an interview for a bachelor’s thesis in sociology at Lund University (Anders Jensen, 2000).
From the middle of the 50’s, all other production was closed down, to focus entirely on excavators. And the business continued to grow: soon every fourth factory worker in the industrial city of Eslöv worked at Åkermans on Bruksgatan. Product development also flourished: a total of 21 different linggrave models were launched in weight classes from eight to 43 tonnes.
In the 60s, hydraulics began to make its way into the world of excavators, first in the form of hydraulic breaking of the bucket on the latest ling excavator models. The next step was fully hydraulic machines, which were easier to drive and could be operated with greater precision than the rope machines.
Åkermans was out early, and in 1966 the company’s first hydraulic excavator was introduced: the 20-tonne Åkerman H11. The number indicated the effect in tens, that is, 110 horsepower, and the letter of course stood for “Hydraulic”.
Flax digger production continued in parallel with hydraulic production for a few years, and the last flax machine was Åkerman M14, almost five times as large as its ancestor Åkerman 300. But from 1974 only hydraulic machines were manufactured, and the flagship was called Åkerman H25. It weighed 50 tons, was four meters wide between the outside of the caterpillar feet, and could handle buckets with a volume of 2,600 liters.
Åkermans bought (and closed down) the competitor Kockum-Landsverk’s excavator production, and thus became Sweden’s only manufacturer in its niche. In 1980, Åkermans was Sweden’s most profitable engineering company, and five years later it was possible to celebrate 10,000 hydraulic excavators sold worldwide. The workforce now amounted to 2,000 employees.
Another six years later, in 1991, Volvo’s Construction Machinery Division (VME) acquired the prosperous company. The company name was changed to VME Excavators, but the machines continued to be sold under the Åkerman brand.
But in the same vein, the recession of the 90s hit. Volvo tried to solve the profitability problems with various savings programs, and service and sales were outsourced to other parts of the large group. Only the pure machine production remained in Eslöv.
This did not reverse the downward trend, rather the opposite, and in 1997 the company had lost SEK 1 billion since VME’s takeover six years earlier. The closure decision was made: the production of wheeled excavators was moved to Volvo’s factories in Germany, while crawler excavator production was relocated to South Korea.
In total, the factory in Eslöv manufactured almost 30,000 excavators over a period of 60 years, but on August 10, 1999, the very last machine rolled off the line. According to unconfirmed information, it still employs a construction company in the Örnsköldsvik area.
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