Industrial Technique’s history

From engineer Gustaf Ryd’s first pneumatic caulking and riveting hammers in the 1880s to today’s 5G-connected tools, the Atlas Copco Group has always sought to expand the realm of power tools. Today, these tools are enabling Industry 4.0.

Text by the Centre for Business History in Stockholm

The assembly of television sets with air powered screw drivers.

In the late 1800s, the production of pneumatic tools proved more successful than railway equipment.

Building on over a century of innovation in power tools, the Atlas Copco Group is today working on a new generation of connected tools to help enable a fourth wave of the industrial revolution (“Industry 4.0”). At the forefront of this transformation of power tools is Jonas Mann, Vice President R&D of the Motor Vehicle Industry Division within the Industrial Technique business area and based in Atlas Copco’s historic Group Center in Sickla.

“My team is creating a new paradigm of connected and sustainable power tools,” says Jonas, “building on past innovations such as the invention of the electric-powered Tensor range by Christer Hansson’s team in the 1980s. No day is like any other and I am stimulated by this great variation in my work. On a daily basis, I collaborate with many very talented and intelligent people across functions – from my own team and the service team to colleagues in supply chain, marketing, and sales.”

“The only thing I regret,” he adds with a smile, “is that I didn’t start working at Atlas Copco sooner!” 

Taking power tools from pneumatic to electric

In the 1890s, young Atlas-engineer Gustaf Ryd embarked on a journey to the USA and England to discover the latest manufacturing technologies. He brought back a pneumatic caulking hammer and a riveting hammer to Sweden. Once it was seen how effective they were, the company’s engineers figured out how to make their own variants. Ultimately, this led to the establishment of the company’s pneumatic tools business.

Fast-forward to the 1920s, when engineer David Roos succeeded in developing a new type of vane motor that was significantly more effective and efficient than the piston engines previously used. This led to the first drill with a vane motor in the 1930s. The next technological leap in power tools was the first dental drill with turbine motors – Atlas Dental Air – which launched in 1957.

In the 1960s, Atlas Copco began exploring the potential of using electricity as a source of power for tools. After decades of intensive R&D, a completely new design principle that differed from traditional electric motors was invented by a team led by Christer Hansson. This work culminated in the first generation of the Tensor nutrunner in 1987, followed by the second, the Tensor S, in 1993, which hugely impacted the automotive industry. 

“Christer Hansson is a legend in this building,” says Jonas, “and his team’s initial groundbreaking Tensor work gave us the market leadership and technological platform that we build on to this day. One of his team members, Bo Hörnström, who started with Atlas Copco in 1969, is still regularly at the office, sharing compelling stories of the past. I’ve only been with Atlas Copco for less than a decade, but I already feel like a part of this company’s great history, and I am inspired by the traces of it all around me.” 

Atlas Copco wrote the book on power tool ergonomics

The Atlas Copco Group’s legacy is evident in other places too. Almost every industrial design book written in the last century makes note of the company’s innovations in power tool ergonomics. For instance, Rune Zernell’s revolutionary new ergonomic drill handle design from the 1960s is a shining example of an innovation that is still used in more or less the same form today on new drills.

Today’s Atlas Copco Group continues to build on the company’s historical breakthroughs made with leading medical experts like professor Fritiof Sjöstrand and in-house industrial designers like Rune Zernell. Today, a large team of specialist ergonomists work, day in and day out, to keep innovating in power tool ergonomics.

Finding the holy grail of automotive quality assurance

The company’s Industrial Technique business area has a long history of strategic acquisitions, such as Chicago Pneumatic Tool Co (1987) and SA Ets Georges Renault (1988), which strengthened the Group’s position in pneumatic tools. With the emergence of electric tools, Atlas Copco was quick to supplement and consolidate its own innovations in tool electrification by acquiring AEG Elektrowerkzeuge (1992) and Milwaukee Electric Tool (1995).

More recently, the Atlas Copco Group saw great potential in combining the latest in machine vision capabilities with its own breakthroughs in connected tools. This led to the acquisitions of Isra Vision and Perceptron in 2020 and a joint innovation that would finally solve an age-old quality assurance challenge in the automotive industry.

“One of the largest missing puzzle pieces for realizing what we call ‘the smart factory’ with full error-proofing was to identify at the bolt level where a tightening tool is being used,” Jonas explains. “Prior solutions were never reliable enough for accurate verification. So, we collaborated with Isra Vision’s team to engineer groundbreaking indoor tracking systems. This has been the holy grail of automotive assembly for years and we are proud to have found a solution.”

Enabling the smart factory of tomorrow

The R&D teams in the company’s business area Industrial Technique are once again innovating, this time to enable Industry 4.0 with a new wave of connectivity, energy efficiency, and flexibility improvements.

“We’re increasingly shifting from cables to batteries to make our tools even more flexible and efficient,” says Jonas. “With improved processing power and connectivity, tomorrow’s connected power tools will be able to process data both on-device and in the cloud. In the summer of 2022, we delivered our latest series of tools enabled by an inhouse-developed 5G accessory. That is a key step in this direction. This technological breakthrough eliminates the need for separate wall-mounted controllers, significantly reducing customers’ carbon footprints. Connected power tools will play a key role in an ecosystem of automated and data-driven manufacturing processes, making the dream of the smart factory a reality.”