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Engineering matters: Norwegian subcontractors to the rescue

Consider the humble paper clip – a design so simple it seems not to even need to be invented. Yet by 1901 a Norwegian inventor named Johan Vaaler made his mark in history when he was granted a patent for a paper clip in both Germany and the United States.

Vaaler never made any money from his invention – as it happens, an alternative design for the most commonly used paper clip, the “Gem”, was never patented – but Vaaler’s foray into the world of innovation is emblematic of the willingness of Norway’s subcontracting companies to step up to the challenges posed by today’s marketplace. The oil and gas industry, the shipping and maritime industry, aquaculture, and the wood products industry all rely on hundreds of specialty parts specifically engineered to meet their special needs.

 
In fact, an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report from 2007 on Norway’s economy found that the country had clear strengths in finding and adopting better ways of doing things. Norway’s “traditionally competitive product markets and high wage levels have meant that firms have been forced to adopt new technologies in order to beat rivals and survive,” the report says. “Although Norwegian firms only produce a small share of their technological innovation needs, they are very apt at taking advantage of existing technological opportunities and translating them into greater efficiency.”
 
Subsea installations, such as the Tyrihans installation, require careful testing, specialized electronics and remote control equipment – all products available from Norway’s subcontractor industry.
©Geir Otto Johansen/ StatoilHydro

Supporting Innovation with Research
The Norwegian Government has formally recognized this spark of creativity in the country’s small specialty firms. In 2007, the Government created VRI, a new regional innovation fund with NOK 142 million available as matching funds for businesses, research institutions and county governments.
 
Roughly NOK 60 million has been awarded in matching grants in 2008 alone. The programme also supports the placement of researchers into companies for a given period to help with product development activities, while company employees may also join a research project at a university, college or research institute.
 
“There are a lot of good ideas and a great deal of undiscovered expertise in Norway’s small companies,” says Leif Estensen, a researcher who is working with the programme, says in a recent article in Aftenposten. “With a little help, this can translate into enormous opportunities.”
 
Bringing Oil & Gas to the Market
With oil and gas representing Norway’s most profitable export, it should come as no surprise that many different firms produce the thousands of specialty parts that play a role in extracting petroleum from the wild North Atlantic.
 
One example of this is Rubberstyle AS, which was founded in 1924, long before oil was discovered on the Norwegian Continental Shelf. The company makes everything from mats for cow barns and bumpers for boats. The burgeoning oil and gas market has led the company to sell a variety of niche products suited to the offshore industry.
Another rubber manufacturer is Trelleborg Viking AS, the largest producer of rubber products in Norway. The company is a part of the Trelleborg Engineered Systems group, and produces lining products that protect against corrosion, fire and heat. Its fastest growing product is ElastopipeTM, a patented piping system made from synthetic rubber that can withstand jet fires, temperatures above 1250° C and flame speeds that exceed the speed of sound, making it ideal for deluge and sprinkler systems on offshore oil and gas installations and ships.
 
The offshore industry has also been a major player in the growth of companies such as Sylinderteknikk AS, based in Oslo. Established in 1994, the company is one of Norway’s leading producers of hydraulic cylinders for the marine and offshore industries, as well as in subsea installations. Among the businesses that use the company’s products are AkerKværner, Hydro Aluminium,ABB, FMC Kongsberg Subsea, SørNorge Aluminium, HydraMarine, TTS Ships Equipment and National Oilwell Norway AS.
 
Another highly specialized company is Norfjær, makers of steel springs, with more than 20 machines for creating specialized springs types – the only such company in Norway. The advantage of such a firm is that customers can come with problems and company engineers can design specialized spring solutions to fit customer needs. Norfjær works in cooperation with the Institute of Spring Technology in Sheffield English, which is a research institute for European spring producers.

Daily operations on an oil platform demand thousands of specialty parts, from hydraulic cylinders, to winches, to hoses and pipes – some of which are developed and manufactured by Norway’s subcontractor industry.
© Harald Pettersen / StatoilHydro
 
 
Plastic & Glass
Probably no other substance in the world lends itself so completely to manufacturing flexibility than plastic. Norwegian subcontractors have taken on the challenge in developing services that exploit plastic’s unique properties to meet individual customer needs.
 
Industriplast AS in Follese started manufacturing plastic profiles in 1963, and has specialized in the production of hard and flexible profiles, hoses, tubes and pipes made from thermoplastic materials. The company makes cable protection pipes, more than 200 models of fender sections for pleasure boats, piers and landing stages, and custom made products.
 
Miko Plast AS of Oslo also makes a variety of custom designed plastic products, created with vacuum forming, injection moulding or machining. The company won a Scanstar 2007 award for its Plano package, made from polypropylene and designed for sending medicines or nutritional supplements by mail. The design is unique because it is approved for direct food contact, it is tamper evident and its dimensions suit mail boxes.
 
But one of the company’s most unusual recent assignments was to make a form for Eiker Vekst AS in Mjøndalen, which wanted to make marzipan dachshund to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of a book series written by the Norwegian children’s author Anne-Cath Vestlys. While marizpan pigs, chicks and eggs are all common holiday candy, none of these shapes was quite like the dachshund from Vestlys’s books. Miko Plast called in its own subcontractor, Minoko AS, which used a hand-held 3-D laser scanner and software to construct a structure that Miko Plast could use to make a form for the dog for Eiker Vekst.
 
Formvac AS in Hellesylt specializes in delivering a variety of ready made plastic parts, including portable ice-cream containers for sales, train seat parts and motorcycle parts, all produced using vacuum forming as the process. But the company also can respond to specific customer requests, providing custom designed and produced plastic products. In one case, a customer had designed an underwater vacuum cleaner but needed specific parts. Formvac’s designers were able to come up with a solution that worked for the design – and the parts were ready in just a week.
 
Liglass AS of Lillehammer also delivers products that are specialized for customer needs – but all their products are made of glass. Because the company makes all of its products in Lillehammer, customers can expect rapid delivery times for custom or ready made products.
 
Subcontractors in the Electronic Age
Norway is one of the most wired countries on the planet: as of the end of 2007, the latest year for which numbers are available, 94% of the population had a mobile phone, 87% had a home computer and 83% had at-home Internet access, while fully 66% of the population logged on to the Internet at least once a day. Electronics and related devices are as integral to life in Norway as smoked salmon and brown cheese.
 
A number of subcontractors have specially developed markets to respond to the electronics and telecommunications industry. AXXE Logistics, based in Halden, is a leading Electronics Manufacturing Services (EMS) provider that works with customers who need a small to medium number of complex products in a short period of time. Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson are the company’s biggest customers.
 
Q-Free, a Trondheim-based company that makes electronic toll collection equipment, buys a number of specialty parts from Norwegian subcontractors. The company installed the toll collection system in Stockholm, Sweden.
© Q-free

Simpro AS in Løkken Verk provides a variety of circuit boards and other products related to remote control equipment and surveillance gear. The company’s biggest customer is the Trondheim-based Q-Free, which Europe’s leading supplier of electronic toll collection (ETC) systems. Other customers include Cavotec Micro-control and Kongsberg Seatex.
 
Olav Sigurd Kvaale, Simpro’s founder, could be speaking for all of Norway’s electronics subcontractors when he recently summed up his business views for Adressavisen, Trondheim’s daily newspaper. “We have to be at the leading edge with production technologies and automation, and we have to strive to be flexible,” he says.

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