It is often said at the Atlas Copco Group that “passionate people create exceptional things.” But how do you get passionate employees? The answer, proven over time: by giving them the opportunity to grow with new challenges and take on assignments in other countries, and by always offering the chance for lifelong learning. Because it is only with knowledgeable and committed employees that a company has the foundation it needs for its future innovations.
Text by the Centre for Business History in Stockholm
Passionate people emerge when people are offered many ways of learning, of developing themselves. That’s what the Atlas Copco Group has realized over time. And although “never stop learning” may be a contemporary concept, the Group has offered its employees training in many ways over the years.
Today, for instance, the Group gives employees the opportunity to pursue doctoral studies – on the job. One of these is Sofia Olsson, who is doing a PhD in Electronics and Embedded Systems at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, Sweden, while still working for the Group in the Industrial Technique business area. Her research area is mechatronics, the interface between mechanics, software, and electronics, where not least artificial intelligence (AI) plays a prominent role.
“I work in a team called Total Workstation, where we develop products that will make things easier for people in the field,” explains Sofia. “Many of our products are about indoor positioning – locating objects inside other structures where, for instance, traditional GPS doesn’t work. My research project focuses on a system that combines a camera with other sensors to create an indoor positioning system that we can integrate into a tool. This tool will also have software that tells it, for instance, which bolt an operator should work on. If the operator points the tool at the wrong bolt, the tool should be automatically disabled. The tool should also keep track of whether a bolt has already been tightened, so it can block any further attempts. To do this at the level of accuracy that we want, advanced algorithms and software are required. And it must work fast, which is why we are also developing a custom-made computer chip, to process all this information within the time frame we want.”
Sofia was hired by the Atlas Copco Group shortly after receiving her master’s degree from KTH. She was glad to work at a large global product company but had no plans to do a doctorate. However, she came to work closely with Ava Mazaheri, an industrial PhD student in ergonomics, who encouraged her to consider doctoral studies. When a doctoral position focused on software and mechatronics was advertised on the Group’s Internal Job Market, Sofia took the chance. She applied – and got the position.
The Vocational School in Sickla
Sofia Olsson is one of several industrial PhD students in the Industrial Technique business area. The Group has a long tradition of promoting further education – but the manner has differed over time.
In 1941, for instance, Atlas Diesel started a three-year vocational school to train young students to become skilled industrial workers. The training included both practical and theoretical subjects. The practical part was located in the company’s workshops, where the boys – because it was an all-male institution at the time – not only received training, but also apprentice wages. The theoretical training included drawing, calculation, occupational safety, tool theory, material and machine theory, and vocational economics.
It was a popular training program. In 1942, there were 44 applicants for 24 openings. All applicants had good school grades. To aid the selection process, the company began using psychological aptitude tests. Later, these psychological tests were replaced by more practical aptitude tests, where the applicants had to assemble various things while being timed.
Lennart Gustafsson, now retired but still occasionally working in the test mine below the Sickla office, today run by spin-off company Epiroc, began his career at Atlas Copco’s vocational school. The year was 1963 and the classrooms were in a barrack where Atlas Copco’s Group Center is located today. During the first year, the theoretical training included machine elements and materials theory or the art of reading drawings and making your own. Some hands-on practice in the industrial school’s own workshop was included.
“Then, in year two, things started to happen,” says Lennart. “We went from the school workshop to actual production departments. They rotated us between departments every two months, so you soon learned what you thought was the most fun. We got to work with milling, turning, drilling, turret turning, and grinding. We even worked in the forge because we had our own forge back then.”
In year three, the students had to choose what they wanted to work with and then spent their last year in production. Upon graduation, Lennart joined the company as an employee.
“As a test engineer, I was tasked with building a new test cell in one of our laboratories,” he says. “We dug out a whole room where we set up a square rock on a pedestal, which we used to test our drills. It let us measure what happened inside the machines. This was the start of rock drilling technology as we know it today. It was very advanced for its time, pure fundamental research. We also had people in other laboratories doing PhDs on this.”
The Internal Job Market
Like many at the Atlas Copco Group, Lennart Gustafsson has worked in different locations and countries. He spent several years in Montréal, Canada as, among other things, marketing manager for Montreal Works, a production unit for North America. The company’s Internal Job Market, launched in 1992, made it easier to make such moves. Overall, according to Lennart, the Internal Job Market makes it easier for ambitious employees who want to grow within the company to find job opportunities – and each job change then creates a chain reaction. Because when one person switches jobs, a position becomes vacant and can be filled by someone else in the company. In this way, competence and know-how are spread across the Group.
The Internal Job Market was introduced by then Head of Human Resources Marianne Hamilton, who had a different view on how recruitment in large industrial companies should be handled, at least compared to the practices of company peers at the time.
The Internal Job Market builds on the idea that anyone anywhere in the Group can apply for any open position (with the exception of the position of President and CEO), no matter where it is. Not only does this help individuals in their careers, but it also promotes transparency in the Group. All employees worldwide have the same insight about which jobs are available, and everyone can apply for positions they think are interesting. The person ultimately chosen for a particular job is decided by the hiring manager.
This Internal Job Market also builds on the idea that each employee is responsible for his or her own career. There are not, as in many other companies, carefully marked career paths at the Atlas Copco Group. Instead, there are many open career doors to choose from.
The best of two worlds
Being an industrial PhD student at a company, like Sofia Olsson, differs somewhat from being a PhD student employed at a university. Sofia is formally employed by the Atlas Copco Group and has, as she puts it, more “industrial thinking” built into her day-to-day work. She also has access to real customer dilemmas and real customer data. At the same time, Sofia also has a workplace at KTH and is part of a doctoral student group there.
At Atlas Copco, several PhD students work in different areas and departments. In 2017, the internal Atlas Copco’s Research School was established within the Industrial Technique business area. The network was added at the initiative of Martin Karlsson, then Head of Tightening Technique and group leader for several of the doctoral students. At the time, the doctoral students who were spread out over many departments had no immediate way of sharing experiences with each other. Thanks to the creation of the internal network, they now have a forum to meet and exchange thoughts and ideas. Being an industrial PhD student is a rare work role, and here they get to discuss things that are not part of the academic world, for example the psychology of learning, pitching research ideas to managers, and how to present at conferences.
Within Sofia Olsson’s project, the Atlas Copco Group has a special collaboration with KTH that could have a big impact in the future. It’s all about the special hardware chip required for the indoor positioning system Sofia is working on.
“The hardware is custom-made at the transistor level and optimized for our algorithms, through a modular design that allows a quick synthesis at a low engineering cost,” she says. “The technique can be used on many other computationally intensive AI solutions.”
The project has recently received extended support from Atlas Copco, to take it from the stage of carrying out simulations of the chip, to actually manufacturing test chips for real prototypes. This is done together with Digital Futures at KTH, which also contributes financially.
The potential benefits of this project are many, both for the Atlas Copco Group and for society at large. Calculating heavy algorithms requires a lot of energy, but if this can be done on specific hardware, the calculations become less energy-intensive. There are more benefits, explains Sofia.
“Better indoor positioning, which this hardware solution is used for, will help our customers reach higher quality, as these types of errors are often discovered too late in the assembly process. A loose bolt somewhere may mean that you must discard the entire product or start disassembling components in order to rebuild them correctly. You don’t want anything going wrong with the finished product. That could have serious consequences, for example in the automotive or aerospace industries. By offering this type of quality system, the customer can go back and check that everything went right in the assembly phase. If our tools can ensure that products are not thrown away, fewer resources and materials will be required, which ultimately is good for the environment.”