Jacob Hvidtved Larsen founded his company in 1915 initially as a repair shop for motorbikes and other mechanical devices. 100 years later, still based in the Danish town of Silkeborg, today the company is a market leader in sewer cleaning technology, with JHL cleaning vehicles used in more than 28 countries around the world.
In the 1990s the story was very different. The company was scraping by – barely making a profit and with often erratic income. The company would supplement its limited manufacturing output of specialist cleaning vehicles with small jobs, producing everything from bus chassis to crane parts – they even fixed the fountain in the local town square.
“We produced all sorts of things, we felt that diversity made us less vulnerable. But the catch was we never became very good at any of it.”
How design helped
When in 2000 Søren Hvidtved Larsen took over as the third generation of the family to run the business, he knew things needed to change – the company couldn’t carry on as it was, and needed to find a way to expand.
“Our best product, our sewer cleaning vehicles, were a market leader, but in Denmark the demand for these does not exceed 20 – 30 a year. If we wanted to expand in this industry we could only do it through exports”
Larsen knew international demand for his products was potentially huge, so brought in design agency CBD (now called Attention group) to look at how they could produce an internationally competitive product and scale up their manufacturing.
“It was immediately apparent that J. Hvidtved Larsen’s production processes were anything but rational.”
CBD discovered that the company was custom-building each sewer-cleaning vehicle for every customer. Their recommendation was to introduce a standardised construction model for JHL vehicles to rapidly increase production speed.
Commissioned by Larsen, CBD helped design a new cleaning vehicle for JHL called FlexLine. A key part of this design was a modular system of components which brought standardisation and huge efficiencies to the production line. Importantly this system still allowed the company to accommodate special requests from customers.
“We work with a wide range of companies, and inefficient production processes like we saw at J. Hvidtved Larsen are not uncommon. With our experience we notice these things immediately. It often takes an outsider to see beyond the way things have traditionally been done.”
€1.3M increase in pre-tax profits
450% increase in annual turnover
5X increase in production
By using design to streamline their manufacturing, JHL dramatically increased their rate of production. The company went from making 20 vehicles a year to more than 100 – this without changing either the production machinery or the size of the workforce.
These changes had a direct impact on the company’s bottom line. In 2001, they had pre-tax profits of €1.2m (8.6m DKK), by 2006 this had more than doubled to €2.5m (18.2m DKK). This new income also reflected the success of their export strategy. Exports grew in the same period from 25% of their business, to more than 75%, with JHL selling vehicles in more than 28 different countries. The Russian market in particular proved very strong, today there are more than 80 JHL vehicles serving the St. Petersburg sewer system alone.
The success of FlexLine has meant design has become firmly ingrained in JHL’s business strategy. In 2006, they worked with Åarhus-based design firm Made by Makers to expand their product line with the CityFlex – a smaller, more compact vehicle made for the narrow sewers of big cities.
“Of course, you can’t put everything down to design. But working with designers has clearly helped drive our company forward, and encourages other companies to take on design”.
Hejselbæk is clear that design is vital to the company’s future:
“You simply get a better result when you mix professions. If you get three engineers together, they’ll all say the same. But if you get an engineer, a designer, and maybe a PR guy together, you’ll get a variety of ideas, and that’s when things begin to happen.”