"I produce weapons" - a day in the Swedish defence industry
In a complex and ever more unpredictable world, Saab’s innovations contribute to making people and societies safe. But what is it like working on the line, producing ground combat weapons, missiles and torpedoes for armed forces and the defence industry? Follow us for a day at one of Saab’s business areas, Saab Dynamics, and the production facility Björkborn with long roots in Sweden’s defence industry.
Meet Katarina, Jonna and Peter who work in the business area Dynamics, constructing advanced weapon systems.
Breakfast at Björkborn is in full swing. The kitchen in the main building is an informal meeting point for employees, and at this time of day, a mix of managers, office workers and production team members are drinking coffee and eating their breakfast together.
The atmosphere is friendly and talkative, as workers take a few minutes to relax, go through their plans for the day and enjoy each other’s company. Every Friday staff at Björkborn pull out all the stops, preparing breakfast on a rotating breakfast schedule, and enjoying the type of breakfast feast that one would find at any Swedish hotel: scrambled eggs, bacon, smoked salmon, pancakes, sweet rolls, fresh baked bread, cakes and the like. Björkborn is working on three-shifts when we visit, instead of the normal two-shift schedule, to meet the increased orders that have come from Saab customers around the world, so everyone here started their day between 0600 and 0700.
I am very proud to work for this company. All of us at Saab understand the seriousness of working with our products and we always have to act professionally.
Located in the Swedish town Karlskoga, home to 27,000 people and with hundreds of years of industrial tradition, Saab Dynamics is spread out over more than 120 freestanding small houses that dot the enclosed industrial park area, which is approximately 3 square kilometres in size. The juxtaposition of small prefab houses and woodlands is even more apparent when you see deer jumping in the high grass just behind the production houses. Many of these houses have small teams of just four or six people working there, and the larger ones have up to 40 people working in them.
Daniel Thörn, Head of Production, explains that: “Since this production facility is quite unique with production teams all located in small houses, the chance to meet in the kitchen during mealtimes is a nice way to still feel connected to your colleagues.”
After breakfast, Thörn gives a safety demonstration and explain the measures that are in place for visitors and staff at the production area. “We work with energetic materials here and we are very careful to adhere to all the safety precautions that are in place for our industry,” he says. “Safety and quality control are at the core of everything that we do here at Björkborn.”
Home to Carl-Gustaf
In addition to explaining the dos and don’ts at the facility, Thörn also shows replicas of some of the products that are made here. He takes out the 84 mm recoilless rifle Carl-Gustaf, used by more than 40 nations worldwide, from a display case.
I thought that working for the defence industry wasn’t something I wanted to do, I didn’t want to be a part of that world.
“This has been a very important product for us here, and our testing of products like Carl-Gustaf is crucial. Our products must be eady for use once the clients get them. They have to be of the highest quality, fully reliable, and fully operational in a battlefield setting, and they
Jonna Sarajärvi, is a first line manager who has worked at the Björkborn facility for 18 years. We meet in her office for a short meeting before she visits her team on site. Until recently, Sarajärvi worked on the production line, but has made her way up through the organisation and now has a supervisory role. For Sarajärvi, Björkborn is not only a workplace, it’s a family tradition. Her mother is celebrating 40 years at the facility on the day we visit, and other family members including her father have also worked here.
“When I was a teenager, I thought that working for the defence industry wasn’t something I wanted to do, I didn’t want to be a part of that world. But my family told me Saab was a good place to work and that I should give it a try anyway,” Sarajärvi explains. When a position became available, she decided to give Saab a chance.
“Everyone was kind and helpful. There was a real feeling of belonging, and I saw that the company really cares about people, and about society. I spoke to colleagues about the products, and came to understand that in an ideal world we wouldn’t need weapons and a defence industry. However, the world is turbulent and the most important thing that Saab does, is work to make people and society safe. It’s a human right and it’s important. I knew that I wanted to work here.”
Career development and variation
Sarajärvi says that having encouraging team leaders and colleagues has given her the desire to challenge herself.
“My supervisors have seen my interest in doing more, and have found ways for me to develop my skills. I was encouraged to apply for the role of manager of Ammunition Assembly Workshops, and have been given support as I get to know the team and the new responsibilities of the role I now have. It has been a fantastic journey for me personally.”
For Sarajärvi, there is a clear advantage of having worked on the production line and now working as a team leader.
“I have held the same positions as the people in my team, so I can give pointers on how to help new employees that are learning the processes and insights about how we work,” she says.
Sarajärvi eats lunch with a few of her team members in a small house placed at one end of the facility. The team usually has six people, but a few are off site today, so there are only four women seated around the table in the little kitchen. Two of them have recently started working at Saab Björkborn.
“One of the women here had full time employment working elsewhere in Karlskoga, but decided to take a temporary position here anyway,” says Sarajärvi. “She knew that there was a risk involved in accepting the position, because we had nothing permanent to offer her, but she liked working here so much that she decided it was worth taking the chance.”
Luckily, a position became available and Sarajärvi was able to offer her new team member a long-term position.
Saab Dynamics is a popular place to work, and Sarajärvi explains that there are 500 unsolicited applications that are received each year. In an area like Karlskoga, where a large number of employees come from the surrounding areas, it’s a good sign. Applications and interest are steady, even before ads are placed looking for new employees. To a large extent, that’s a result of the informal testimonials of friends, neighbours and family, sharing their positive experiences of working at Saab.
“This is an innovative and collaborative environment,” says Katarina Mälman, a project manager who works with the air defence system RBS 70-family. She’s worked for at Saab for 16 years in a number of roles before her placement in her present position. As with many of her Björkborn colleagues, it’s a family affair, Mälman’s mother and uncle also work here.
“There is a sense of pride and belonging that is obvious when you meet Björkborn employees. For me, and for my colleagues, working in a team and knowing that we can succeed together is the most important thing we do, regardless of what role we have here at the company.”
Katarina manages a cross functional team to secure the production process and ensure that orders from clients are on schedule for delivery. She splits her time between the shop floor inspecting the production process and speaking to the team on the line, with managerial meetings in the office. The quest for constant improvement drives her, and is a cornerstone of the work that is done across the board at Saab Björkborn.
“It’s my job to ensure that we deliver on time and efficiently to our clients. There is always room to be more efficient, and to improve what we do”, she says.
Long history of defence industry
Tony Ring, Head of Karlskoga’s Municipal Executive Committee, explains that having Saab located in Karlskoga is good for the community.
“We are very proud of our longstanding link to the defence industry here. Alfred Nobel had his laboratory here and conducted dynamite experiments in the late 1800’s not far from where the Björkborn industrial area is located today”, he says.
Bofors, the company Nobel owned, was the precursor to the modern defence industry in Karlskoga today. There was a period of time however, when the business landscape changed and the municipality had more people moving out, than moving in.
“We feared that our community was no longer going to flourish“, explains Ring. “So when Saab was established at Björkborn, things turned around for our community. Now we have 4,500 people who commute to work here every day because a number of new companies related to the defence industry have also decided to base their operations in Karlskoga. We’ve also seen a number of pharmaceutical companies establishing their headquarters here too,” he says.
“We are building new housing to attract even more people to the area, since we know that more businesses are interested in coming here, and their employees will need somewhere to live. Our municipality now has a number of very high tech industries that are based here. People know that there are interesting employment opportunities available in Karlskoga now. A number of foreign companies have joint partnerships with companies that are based here. They are investing and are building state of the art production facilities, so the area has become much more dynamic.”
Testing and security are key
Over 400 dedicated Saab employees work with the assembly and tests of complete systems ranging from missiles, support weapons and subsystems to torpedoes energetic subsystems at Björkborn. They also assemble and test subsystems such as sensors, proximity fuses and optics, and mechanical and electronic ignition systems. In addition, primary explosives and pyrotechnical compounds are produced, as well as igniters. Pressing of secondary explosives, and the machining and insulation of double base propellant also takes place here.
After lunch, we visit a building called Knallen (English for bang) to meet Peter Brunzell who is a laboratory technician at Saab.
One of his core responsibilities is to undertake planned destruction samples of electronic ignition systems, primary explosives and pyrotechnical compounds.
Brunzell is energetic and precise, two good qualities when working with pyrotechnics.
In my opinion every country has a right to protect its borders and citizens. We make weapons here, and we produce parts for them.
You can sense his pride as he gives a tour of the premises. In each small room there are workers quietly filling pyrotechnical compounds, and assembling electronic ignition systems among other things. There are sprinkler systems mounted on the ceilings and in one of the rooms the humidity is more reminiscent of the Amazon jungle, than the crisp chill of a December afternoon in Sweden. Brunzell explains that some of the compounds can be set alight if the air is too dry, which requires maintaining a prescribed level of humidity in the air. An electronically controlled humidity sensor regulates the room’s humidity. If the humidity is too low, the system regulates this by misting the air. On this particular day, the air is apparently quite dry, as the system is sending out blasts of mist at regular intervals.
”We have respect for the materials that we work with. It’s important not to be scared if you are going to work in this section of Björkborn. It’s very safe place to work, but it’s important to ask a question if there is something you are uncertain of, and you have to be careful and alert,” he says.
Brunzell has spent 15 years at Björkborn, with the last ten years spent testing pyrotechnics and analysing burn and ignition times along with his other duties. After he has tested a number of explosives, Brunzell holds up the result. A metal plate used in the controlled test detonation, that had been placed under a small electronic ignition system filled with a pyrotechnical compound, is bent and has a large dent. It doesn’t take much to imagine a much larger explosive being detonated and aimed at a larger target, with significantly more impact.
“In my opinion every country has a right to protect its borders and citizens. We make weapons here, and we produce parts for them. If you feel like this is something you can’t work with, then this isn’t the right workplace for you,” he says.
The sun sets early in the winter in Sweden, and at 1500 it’s the blue hour. The light of day is turning to evening, signalling that it’s soon the end of the workday for Björkborn employees.
Daniel Thörn came to Saab by coincidence after his studies, and in his 13 years at Björkborn he has held four different positions. “This is a fantastic company to work for. Saab sees each employee as an individual, the company gives so much room for development. Working here at Björkborn and being a part of this company is much more than working in production and assembling things”, he explains.
“My hope is that we can get more students from the area interested in studying subjects that can be put to use here, and we are also hoping to attract young men and women to apply for roles at Saab. Once people visit and experience the environment and learn more about our company, they want to work here. It makes me proud every day that I work for a company like this.”