The road from general machine shop to expert in medical and wellness equipment

Beginnings after the civil war

Niilo Ranni founded Vammalan Konepaja in 1919.  Prior to this Ranni worked for a local engineer named Lindström in Vammala.  Ranni developed production methods for Lindström, such as for the manufacture of weights for scales.  Ranni was a metal worker who had no formal qualifications, but started his own workshop nonetheless.  His workshop reflected some of the needs in post-war Finland: many skills and services were needed, and Vammalan Konepaja did its best to fulfil them.  The company grew, and only three years later in 1922 Ranni decided to buy his own premises, complete with residence, in the centre of Vammala.

In 1923 an iron foundry was established to work alongside the machine shop and woodworking departments.  With it came a new line of business, agricultural machinery, which was much needed in post-war Finland.  Under Niilo Ranni’s skilled leadership and product development Vammalan Konepaja manufactured all manner of useful machines, such as machines for transporting grain, NIRA stone grinding machines, woodworking machines and NIRA chaffcutters.  The early years were not without their problems for Vammalan Konepaja, as local newspaper Tyrvään Sanomat reported in 1927:

“This day dawned under unfortunate circumstances in Vammala.  At around 6 o’clock flames began to blaze in N. Ranni’s machine workshop...  According to what we hear, insurance cover was totally inadequate.  So Ranni is facing damages rising into the hundreds and thousands.”
 

Concentrating on agricultural machinery and pumps in the 1930s

Vammalan Konepaja’s own foundry made it possible for the company to develop new cast iron products, from design right through to the finished product.  The foundry helped Vammalan Konepaja make its mark on Finnish sporting history in the 1930s.  In 1934 a contract was made between the Finnish Athletics Federation and Vammalan Konepaja, under which Vammalan Konepaja started to make the shot puts used by both men and women in competitions.  The contract allowed the Federation’s trademark to be cast in the shot puts.  The contract was signed on behalf of Vammalan Konepaja by entrepreneur Niilo Ranni; signing on behalf of the Athletics Federation was its then chairman, Urho Kekkonen, who would go on to become Finland’s eighth president.

The manufacture of pumps for domestic wells also began in 1934.  These pumps proved to be a much more important and innovative product for the company than shot puts, and served to make the company famous for decades to follow.  There was much need for NIRA hand pumps after the Continuation War; farms were created in northern and eastern Finland for evacuees from Karjala, and these new farms needed water supplies.

In the 1930s and 1940s Vammalan Konepaja concentrated on developing and manufacturing  machines needed in the home and in agriculture.  When the company turned 40 in 1959, local newspaper Tyrvään Sanomat wrote about the diversity of know-how in the company:

”The company has expanded its range to include products such as tractor-drawn harrows and rollers.  The range of woodworking tools has also been expanded and existing models improved, stone grinding machines have also been revamped and new types designed.”
 

The armoury moves to Vammala

In the late 1930s and the 1940s the Winter War and the Continuation War also affected Vammalan Konepaja’s activities.  The company had been trading for twenty years when, on the eve of the Winter War, the armoury was moved from the capital to Vammala.  Weapons workshop 1 took up residence in Vammalan Konepaja’s premises on 3.11.1939.  At first, the armoury’s role was to prepare M91 rifles and to fix M09 machine guns.  Later, the armoury worked with Vammalan Konepaja to make parts for machine gun locks and pistols.  It has been estimated that around half the artillery shells fired during the last wars were made in the Vammala armoury.  After the wars Konepaja took part in war reparations by manufacturing a variety of machine parts.  It was also around this time, in 1943, that the company became a limited company.

Niilo Ranni ran Vammalan Konepaja for over 30 years, developing new products and production methods to meet the needs of the times.  He died in 1953, and his wife Anna Ranni stepped into the role of leading the company.  A woman in a position of leadership in a company was very rare in the 1950s.  A few years later Anna Ranni married Urho Kaunisto, who then took over as managing director of Vammalan Konepaja.  Although things became more difficult for the company after Niilo Ranni’s death, Urho Kaunisto managed to lead the company well after the initial setbacks.  Tyrvään Sanomat wrote in 1969:

”In the past years the company has begun production of different types of equipment for working the ground, existing models have been developed and improved.  Vammalan Konepaja also specialises in manufacturing pumps.  In fact, they are the company’s main product.  In the last 10 years the factory’s production has increased around threefold.” 

At the end of the 1950s Vammalan Konepaja was expanding and needed another building in the centre of Vammala.  The council did not grant planning permission for another building; the expansion was therefore moved to neighbouring Kiikka, where an iron foundry and aluminium foundry were set up under the name Kiikan Metalli Oy in 1962.

The company’s best-selling product, the pressure pump, and the aluminium bodied NIRA 6 pump began to be exported  to other countries.  In the late 1960s Vammalan Konepaja exhibited its products at trade fairs in Stockholm and Oslo.  The NIRA pressure pump was a new kind of product on both the Swedish and Norwegian markets.  Marketed as the ’Hyttepumppe’, the NIRA 6 pump sold particularly well in the mountainous regions of Norway in the years following the trade fair.  At home in Finland the NIRA 6 can be found in service as a water pump in many waterfront saunas.  It is also commonly used for other applications, such as oil pumps on farms and for pumping fuel for forest machines.

There has also been much demand for Vammalan Konepaja’s water pumps in Africa.  With the help of development aid, the company developed a village water pump and started to export it to Africa, beginning with Tanzania in 1976.  The company was introduced to the African market by a Ministry of Foreign Affairs development programme to provide wells.  Vammalan Konepaja worked together with YIT, and the support of the large company gave Konepaja valuable experience.  Vammalan Konepaja’s water pumps were featured in a pump manual published by the UN, which also helped increase export sales.

Finland’s internationalisation and participation in international projects began in earnest in the 1980s with co-operative development aid work.  Vammalan Konepaja played a significant role in this development.  The company made and supplied pumps for wells to a number of development areas in the ’70s and ’80s. 

The NIRA AF-85 hand-operated pump was a test-winner in the World Bank’s field and laboratory tests, a testimony to the company’s successful product development.   The pump was developed especially for women to use, and as such it was lighter and easier to use and service than its competitors.  In the early 1990s the pumps were also produced for local use in Tanzania and Ghana.
 

Towards wellness and medical equipment manufacturing

At the end of the 1970s Vammalan Konepaja’s expertise spread to the wellness and medical supply sector.  Caring for pensioners in their homes started to be more of a priority, and Vammalan Konepaja’s designer used his own experiences to design a mechanical device for lifting patients.  This piece of equipment was displayed at trade shows and it became very popular. 

In 1979 Vammalan Konepaja invited engineer and economist Seppo Suuriniemi to lead the company.  Prior to this, Suuriniemi had been in management and marketing at ventilation and air conditioning manufacturer Suomen Puhallintehdas Oy, the predecessor to today’s Fläkt Woods Oy.  His first job in charge at Vammalan Konepaja was to accept an order from the Soviet Union for 100 patient lifting devices.  The size of this order presented a challenge for Vammalan Konepaja, but the order was successfully completed and the equipment delivered to the customer.  The company’s journey to specialising in medical and wellness equipment had begun.

In the early 1980s Vammalan Konepaja made its first treatment table.  MD Seppo Suuriniemi’s wife ran a physical therapy clinic in Tampere, and another branch was opened in Vammala.  Vammalan Konepaja designed new treatment tables to meet her needs.  The products also complemented Instrumentarium’s product range, and Konepaja signed a deal with them to sell and export the company’s treatment tables.

In the early 1980s Vammalan Konepaja also started working together with Swedish operating table manufacturer Stille Ab.  Their first joint venture was to design a new lift for operating theatres.  Soon Konepaja started to make operating table accessories for Stille, as well as the Stille 1100 hydraulic operating table.  As a result of fruitful co-operation, the manufacture of the advanced electro-hydraulic Scandia operating table was moved to Vammalan Konepaja in the late 1980s.  After Stille sold the design to German company Berchtold Gmbh, the operating tables continued to be made in Vammala.

The largest single order to come out of the co-operation with Stille was the export of 147 operating tables to Thailand.  Vammalan Konepaja received widespread recognition in the field of physiatrics when the Swedish Olympic team made the decision to use the company’s treatment and massage tables at the Calgary Olympics in 1988.

Aid to Africa

Although the seeds of Konepaja’s involvement in development aid work were sown using development funds, the company continued independent efforts to supply pumps for wells to developing countries.  In the 1980s and 1990s, MD Seppo Suuriniemi took part in numerous conferences in Africa to tackle the problem of providing clean drinking water.  The development of water pumps also continued, and new versions that were better suited to African conditions, and particularly models that were easier for African women to use, were designed.  Vammalan Konepaja’s trade with the developing world was significant; in 1991 around a quarter of the company’s turnover came from developing countries.  In the early 1990s Konepaja’s pumps were improving water supplies in places including Kenya, Tanzania and Sri Lanka.  Vammalan Konepaja also exported pump manufacturing know-how to Africa; pumps began to be assembled in Tanzania and Ghana for the local markets in the 1990s, although parts for the pumps were still manufactured in Vammala.  The first factory in Tanzania proved itself, which encouraged the company to set up a second factory in Ghana in 1994.  The pumps received praise locally:

”According to tests carried out by the World Bank, these pumps are extremely well suited to African conditions.”  Considering the conditions in Africa, the pumps received acclaim for ease of use, ease of servicing and durability.

Establishing a manufacturing facility in Africa was not without its challenges.  For the Tanzanian factory, for example, the Tanzanian customs created problems – changes in VAT practices meant that one container at a time was held up in customs.

”Then there have been smaller setbacks, such as the state bank running out of money and having to wait for payments.  By the way, our share of Finnish exports to Tanzania is around three per cent; quite an achievement for a medium-sized machine shop.  And of course the most important result is that around five million people pump their daily water with our pumps."

In 2003 President Tarja Halonen visited Tanzania.  In addition to her official engagements she also visited Vammalan Konepaja’s Tanira water pump factory in the capital, Dar es Salaam.  Halonen was pleased with what she saw: 

”People are always wondering how we can get companies to invest in the poorest countries, the really poor countries,” she said.  ”Everyone knows that there isn’t a great rush to invest in them.  Vammalan Konepaja’s pump factory is a good example of a company that continued its work in Tanzania, even after the government aid they received had finished.”

Growth through acquisitions

During the 1980s Vammalan Konepaja’s expertise and know-how was becoming increasingly focussed on the field of medical equipment.  The company philosophy was to manufacture the products in-house from start to finish, and for this the company was well equipped.  With its own iron and aluminium foundry and much investment in equipment and processes, the company was able to keep developing and keep production in-house.  In the early ’80s major investments were made in electromechanics, CNC technology, automated welding, powder coating facilities, and management and design processes.  Computers became an integral part of the design process: a CAD design system was introduced already at the beginning of the ’80s, at around the same time as the new manufacturing facility was built in its current location in Vammala.

In 1989 Vammalan Konepaja bought the rights to manufacture and market hospital beds from Muurame-based company Lojer Oy.  Almost overnight the Muurame factory’s manufacturing was moved to Vammala.  According to MD Seppo Suuriniemi, at that time the company was able to take on the manufacturing of around 1000 hospital beds at a time.  The company had 55 employees at the time, and its turnover was around 20 million FIM.  In the early 1990s hospital beds were exported to places such as Scandinavia, central Europe and Israel.

During the 1990s Vammalan Konepaja invested heavily in product development and incorporating new production methods.  The company was the first hospital equipment manufacturer in Finland to receive ISO9001 quality certification.  Vammalan Konepaja’s management also received recognition when, in 1998, long time managing director Seppo Suuriniemi was chosen by Tampere Chamber of Commerce as company director of the year.

In 1995 the company expanded its line of hospital equipment with the purchase of Kempele-based Temelex Oy.  New premises were acquired for the expansion, and the manufacture of components that Temelex had previously subcontracted were brought in-house, requiring further investment in equipment, painting facilities and welding robots.  In 2003 a new assembly plant, with around 600 m2 of workspace, was built in Kempele.  Temelex concentrates on designing and manufacturing hospital beds.

In 1999 the company expanded its business in the field of physiotherapy by purchasing Medema Physio Ab, a Swedish physiotherapy equipment wholesaler.  In 2004 Vammalan Konepaja expanded into massage tables and associated equipment by acquiring Orimattila-based company Rainer Rajala Oy.  Subsequent business rationalisation has seen Rainer Rajala Oy concentrate on upholstering treatment tables, and it also acts as a logistics centre for domestic, Swedish and Russian sales.  Co-ordination in the physiotherapy field between Medema Physio and Rainer Rajala has resulted in an extended Scandinavian product catalogue, and increased the availability of products in Finland.