Waving the flag for Swedish Manufacturing

The winter sport season has barely started as Norway’s victorious skier, Petter Northug, kicks off his mockery season of our neighbor to the east: Sweden. A few days ago, in the Cross Country World Cup in Gällivare, Sweden, Northug passed the finishing line first—before Sweden—and with a Swedish flag. As the anchorman in the Norwegian cross-country relay team, he made sure that Norway won over Sweden at their home ground once again—and took great care that they knew… At the same time, I spent my third week in Sweden this year. As a student of business, I know that Sweden is a world champion in a “sport” that isn’t publicly celebrated but matters thousand times more than cross-country skiing: Manufacturing!

Winner Northug with Swedish flag in Gällivare November 2012 (Photo: Terje Bendiksby)

Swedes manufacture everything, or close to it… and what they do not produce, Swedish multinationals source from abroad. A typical day for a Swede—let’s call him “Svante”—looks like this:

Svante wakes up happy in his Skanska house, ready for a new exiting day as service engineer for the tooling company Sandvik. He enjoys his Wasa crispbread for breakfast, but—clumsy as he is—he spills the Tetra-Pak-packed milk on his new Tiger of Sweden trousers and H&M underwear. He removes some crumbles with an Electrolux vacuum cleaner and throws his clothing  in the Asko washing machine.

Running late, he hurries to the car port. Because his wife took off to IKEA with the Koenigsegg super-car this morning, Svante heads for the new Gothenburg-manufactured Volvo XC60. He checks if the ski box from Thule is properly closed after using it for his Abu Garcia fishing equipment last weekend. Before spinning out of his car port, he waves good-bye to his Cabby Caravan and  Husqvarna lawn mower.

The car rolls like a dream, just like the ongoing history of Volvo’s mother company: the world’s largest ball bearing company SKF. The Gislaved tires sound just right at the wet asphalt, and—just on schedule—he arrives at his customer of the day: Saab‘s JAS Gripen factory in Linköping. Today, a new innovative Sandvik tool must be installed on a robotic cell from the Swiss-Swedish ABB.

A few hours later the mission is completed. Svante calls his wife with his Sony Ericsson cell phone and reminds her to pick up the Brio toy for their nephew’s birthday next weekend. On his way home, 5 Scania trucks passes with heavy loads: A series of Hägglunds‘ CV90 combat vehicles are heading north.

Finally home, he pulls a Findus fish meal out of the freezer, turns on Spotify where Robyn is rocking, and starts reading Liza Marklund‘s most recent crime novel. What an ordinary day in the life of a Swede! He needs a night-cap… Svante considers an Absolut, but decides that this is not the time for vodka—its the time for a proper Kosta Boda-glas filled to the rim with Mackmyra Swedish Whisky.

Svante can be proud of his country: in the 2012-2013 ranking, the World Economic Forum ranks it the 5th most competitive country in the world. Nevertheless, Sweden also needs to take better care of its advantages: More and more manufacturers close down Swedish factories and move abroad for “more competitive salaries”. What is forgotten, is that a critical mass of manufacturing know-how is needed for remaining innovative. What else are you going to innovate? Swedes need jobs, not apps.

Some Northug-mentality would benefit the Swedish manufacturing industry. To become the best is a serious investment in change, pride and winner instincts. A long-term commitment to an XPS strategy is a must. Companies like Scania, Volvo, Haldex, Alfa Laval and Electrolux are all brilliant examples in that regard. My factory tour in Sweden this week takes me through Arvika, Vara, Braås and Eskilstuna; more than 1000 km of manufacturing excellence. Yes, Northug—there are indeed good reasons to wave the Swedish flag.o