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How the supplier industry and UiA became a success story

Entrepreneurs often work more than they talk. Furthermore, they compete and refrain from revealing their innovations to others. A new study explains the success of the supplier industry in Agder.

Illustrasjon av oljeplattform i Nordsjøen
A study at UiA shows how a small region achieved big goals when researchers and business leaders agreed on common goals (Illustration image: Istock.com / Arild Lilleboe).

During the 1960s, only one or two entrepreneurial companies in Agder were involved in cranes and equipment. Over time, their numbers grew. By the 1980s, there were many.

By the turn of the century, they had become significant players. The largest among them were National Oilwell Varco (NOV), Aker Solutions, and Cameron.

Yet, hardly anyone discussed them in the newspapers or the local councils. Public discourse did not revolve around the supplier industry.

Roger Normann ved Handelshøyskolen ved UiA

Roger Normann from the School of Business and Law at UiA 

In the 1980s, there were serious discussions about the decline in industry and the post-industrial era ahead. The process industry in Agder was what captured the attention of politicians and newspaper discussions. 

Hushed voices behind the scenes

No one openly discussed college and university either.

However, things were happening behind the scenes. They talked about engineering school. College, they said. Eventually, university was also mentioned, although in hushed tones.

An engineering school, a college and a university were all realised over time.

However, well into the 1990s, it was fairly quiet around the supplier industry.

A study on the supplier industry

All of this is revealed in a study on the pioneering work that led to job creation and innovative products in the supplier industry in Agder.

This study was conducted by researchers from UiA: Roger Normann, Mikaela Vasstrøm, and Hans Christian Garmann Johnsen. They examined the development of business and industry in Agder from 1955 to 2015.

The study shows how a small region achieved significant objectives when researchers and business leaders agreed on shared goals.

“A central feature of this development has been that entrepreneurs from both business and academia came together, agreed on common goals and steered development in the same direction,” says Roger Normann from the School of Business and Law at the University of Agder (UiA).

He points out that UiA eventually had representatives from regional businesses on its board, while businesses, in turn, had UiA staff on their boards.

Under the radar

“The supplier industry did not emerge in complete silence, but it developed under the radar. The industry isn’t mentioned in public documents at the municipal or county level from 1969 and well into the 2000s,” says Normann.

“The industry became a national player in the 1980s, almost in parallel with the rest of societal development,” says Professor Hans Christian Garmann Johnsen.

UiA-professor Hans Christian Garmann Johnsen

UiA Professor Hans Christian Garmann Johnsen

The development of the college in Agder and later the university also took place in a separate sphere outside of other societal developments, or as the researchers call it, the ‘academic field.’

“In the 1970s and 1980s, they were closed and separate societal areas. People would go on ‘field trips’ to businesses, as it were. But there was no close or real collaboration on research, development, and innovation,” says Associate Professor Mikaela Vasstrøm.

Milestones

But then there are certain milestones that changed the rules of the game, raised voices, and put the supplier industry on the map.

Here, we could mention several key individuals, but the researchers have anonymised their sources from academia, business and politics in their study.

We could also mention the entrepreneur Bjarne Skeie, who was already building hydraulic cranes in the 1960s. Some call him the godfather of Agder’s supplier industry.

Or we could write a few words about the engineer and academic Knut Brautaset. He played a pivotal role in establishing Agder Regional College of Technology in 1967, Agder Regional College in 1969, and the University of Agder in 2007. Some call him the pioneer of higher education in Agder.

The mechatronics education is also noteworthy among the milestones. Mechatronics was already being taught in colleges in Agder.

Since its establishment in 2007, UiA has been the sole provider of bachelor’s and master’s programmes in mechatronics, a diverse field that encompasses mechanics, electronics, computer science and artificial intelligence.

Node and the world map

We should also dedicate a few paragraphs to Kjell O. Johannessen. He had a loud voice and was the driving force behind the establishment of the Node business cluster in 2005.

Førsteamanuensis Mikaela Vasstrøm ved UiA

Associate Professor Mikaela Vasstrøm from UiA

Since 2005, the region’s supplier industry was on the map. And now we’re not just talking about the map of southern Norway, or the map of Norway. We’re talking about the world map.

Node founder Kjell O. Johannessen could eventually drop his mantra that we were better known in Houston, Texas, than in Oslo and the rest of Norway.

By the late 2000s, the over 70 supplier companies (as of 2016) in Node were internationally recognised as innovative and outstanding contributors to the global oil and gas industry.

Co-creation is key

However, the researchers refrain from singling out one event or environment.

The point is that multiple events contributed to the success.

And the main point is that it is no longer about going it alone and in separate spheres (or fields). Now, it’s about co-creation. Different environments come together, communicate, and agree on shared goals.

“Several fields have merged and collectively developed industry, workplaces, research and development projects, as well as new products,” says Garmann Johnsen.

This collaboration led to Node being designated as a Norwegian Centre of Expertise in 2010.

In 2014, Node, along with UiA and its member companies, was designated a Global Centre of Expertise.

The University of Agder had Node and the entire supplier industry in Agder on the team when UiA’s SFI Offshore Mechatronics obtained the status of a Centre for Research-based Innovation in 2014.

Facts about the Centre for Research-based Innovation Offshore Mechatronics (SFI)

 

SFI Offshore Mechatronics was the first project at UiA to be accepted into the Research Council's SFI programme in 2015. The overarching goal of the SFI scheme is to enhance innovation capacity and boost value creation in Norwegian business and industry through long-term research.

Academic partners:

  • NTNU
  • Aalborg Universitet (DEN)
  • NORCE Forskning
  • RWTH Aachen Universitet (GER)

Partners from the industry:

  • National Oilwell Varco Norway (NOV)
  • HMH (previous MHWirth)
  • MacGregor 
  • SLB (Cameron Sense)
  • GCE NODE
    (Industry Cluster)
  • Skeie Technology Group 
  • Lundin Norway
  • StepChange
  • ABB
  • Bosch-Rexroth (GER)
  • Klüber Lubrication (GER)
  • Egde Consulting

Blueprint for success for others?

The UiA researchers’ study focuses on economic and industrial development. They have examined barriers, drivers and successful collaborative projects that led to success.

The researchers nevertheless hesitate to claim that the study provides a blueprint for how to succeed in industrial development.

“This growth is difficult to replicate with political decisions elsewhere. In addition, development occurs in specific locations with unique conditions and their own cultural and industrial experiences,” says Normann.

“But perhaps Agder can repeat the success in another field?”

“There is reason to be optimistic. If you’ve succeeded once, you can succeed again,” says Normann.

 

Source: Roger Normann, Mikaela Vasstrøm and Hans Christian Garmann Johnsen: ‘Field analysis of industrial development in a peripheral region of Norway’ published in Norwegian Journal of Geography (2022). The key sources in the study are 15 in-depth interviews with stakeholders from business, academia, and the public sector in Agder. The participants have been anonymised. The study shows how mechatronics and the supplier industry emerged and became the main driver of regional growth in Agder over a 50-year period from 1955 to 2015.