Swedish ideas keep moving

Sven Winquist ball bearing invention stamp

By Tom Freeman


“Mighty oaks from little acorns grow” is a medieval proverb from England, but it could easily be applied to Swedish innovation. Many small ideas which emerged from Swedish minds have gone on to change the world.

Although not as explosive as Alfred Nobel’s dynamite in 1866, the self-aligning ball bearing was an incredibly influential discovery. As a young production engineer in the old factories of Gothenburg in the early years of the twentieth century, Sven Gustaf Winqvist found himself with a problem. The large machines his company used to repair steam engines kept grinding to a halt.

Winqvist began experimenting with the humble ball bearing, and his managers allowed him space to set up an experimental workshop from where he changed the world. By 1907 he had established Swedish Kullagerfabriken AB (SKF), which remains an industry leader to this day, keeping machine shafts rotating and equipment moving in 130 countries around the world. 

How has this success been maintained? According to Bernd Stephan, Senior Vice President, SKF Group Technology Development, it has been the company’s commitment to innovation. “This is especially true in the engineering sector,” he said, “where one ground-breaking idea can change the face of a whole product market. Recognising and keeping ahead of industry trends is as much a part of successful development as anything else.”

SKF released a report in Februarycalled ‘Power the Future’, in which several leading academics from across the world joined specialists in the company to look at what emerging trends in technology could mean for the future.

“Through continuing to nurture industrial activity and development, we in SKF believe we can power the future and unlock the next industrial revolution,” said Stephan.

Ball bearing technology is still being led by SKF. Magnus Kellström’s toroidal roller bearing was introduced in 1995. SKF are not alone though. Next time it rains, be thankful for the zipper on your overcoat, which was developed by Gideon Sundbäck in 1913 from a more primitive hook-and-eye version.


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