Last week I said I'd share more about my trip to the Viking factory in Kufstein as part of the Stihl and Viking press trip, and I've started to write this post in my head many times. It's a post I want to reflect the warmth and hospitality we enjoyed, but also where I hope I can share some of the passion that was so apparent from the Viking workers.
And I also want to explain why now I think Viking lawnmowers are more than just a lawnmower. But let's start at the beginning, or with cake anyway. This was part of our packed lunch as we travelled from Munich to the factory in Kufstein.
Arriving at the factory, and having got over the amount of snow I started to marvel at the icicles. And once I'd snapped this one I joined the rest of the group and admired the amount of snow, the blue skies and the view. Not a bad view, hey? It was only later during the factory tour that we saw this mountain view is the one the workers on the production lines have.
Viking are actually a relatively young company, founded in 1981 in Kufstein, with twenty people. Since then they've joined the Stihl group and moved into a new factory, which with tremendous foresight, is a space that has allowed them to expand their operations and double their floorspace, creating the Competence Centre where they do everything from the ideas, the design, the testing and build the machines. And they still have enough land to double the size of their factory again, now that's forethought.
I've not been on many (any) factory tours but I was struck by just how happy and proud all of the Viking employees were, from the production line to the research department, and yes it's not something you think about is it. Research into products, I mean. We learnt - and saw - just how this passion for their product has driven research to make the lawnmowers efficient, quiet and long lasting.
I'll come back to the noise levels, taking efficient as read, let's start with long lasting. Now I'm not technically minded, and apologies if you are - actually if you are you'll probably be interested in this review by Jay at Gadgety News who was also on the trip - but what I learnt about the elastic properties of metal in a short presentation was fascinating.
I'll attempt to put that briefly into non-technical speak.
Lawnmowers have blades, those blades are made of metal. The blade is attached to the crankshaft, which (very) basically attaches the blade to the lawnmower. If you try to bend one of those blades, you'll struggle because they're hard and unbendable. The blades rotate and cut the grass, simple. Now this might not be something you'd ever thought of (and I'm with you there), but when your lawnmower hits a stone, or something else hard, what happens is something has to give, and because the blade is hard, traditionally it's the crankshaft which does. And that's not good, because it's expensive. Expensive to fix and expensive to replace.
With me so far?
So what the clever people at Viking have done is develop a blade that can in effect be sacrificed, instead of the expensive crankshaft. The research that's gone into this is astounding. And it makes sense doesn't it, sacrifice a cheaper part that is easier to replace rather than a key and expensive part.
Now this was the bit that was really fascinating. What they've done is make use of the elastic properties of the metal, yes that hard metal blade that's unbendable. When it rotates at speed its properties change and I saw it with my own eyes gracefully flapping like a bird. The movement is relatively small, but there is movement and that means when the lawnmower hits something hard, the blade is able to absorb the impact and the more expensive crankshaft is protected.
And that's what struck me about Viking, they want to deliver the best product they can to their customers. They don't want us throwing away their lawnmowers with a broken crankshaft, and replacing them with another model or worse still make, they'd much rather us buy their products and replace the blades as we need to. It's the kind of thing that really plays to my sustainability ethos, and yours too I'm sure.
Just like the compact range - remember I shared unboxing the Stihl Compact Trimmer recently, and yes I'm still waiting for my grass to grow - with their interchangeable batteries. It just makes sense. Actually while we're talking about the compact range, in the Viking showroom I saw there is also a compact lawnmower which uses the same size battery.
As I said it just makes a lot of sense.
But anyway, back to the noise levels.
Now I shouldn't have been surprised at the extent Viking go to to ensure the noise levels of their lawnmowers are low. But I was. In the Competence Centre, we were treated with a visit to Europe's largest anechoic chamber. And until I stepped through the door, I had no idea what it was or what I'd experience.
But it was amazing.
It's basically a room where the echo is removed. From your steps, from your voice, from clapping your hands, from everything. It's the opposite of an echo chamber and is designed to absorb reflections of sound or electromagnetic waves. A totally surreal experience, and one that MOH who's into his hifi was slightly envious of when I told him.
So you'll be able to tell if your neighbours have a Viking mower, as you won't be able to hear it and it won't disturb your gin and tonic in the garden, as they start to cut their grass. I don't know about you, but that always happens to us. We've finished our gardening, and want to enjoy the efforts of our hard work, we just get settled and then the neighbours fire up their lawnmower, which is clearly, by the noise levels alone, not a Viking!
A happy workforce
I've mentioned this before, but it was so noticeable. I'll admit I don't have a UK production line comparison, but I've a hunch that it won't compare. The Viking products are on the whole assembled by hand, they have machinery to check parts of the process, of course they do, but there's also a lot of human interaction. As we toured the factory floor and the offices, the Viking employees couldn't help but show their pride and enthusiasm for their company, and the part they played in it.
As a communicator in my day job, that was a pleasure to see, and when I correctly guessed that passion was one of their company values, the management team couldn't have been more proud this had been spotted based on their employees behaviours. And if I'm honest, if I were them, I'd have been proud too.
Can you spot what's different here?
I'll admit it's not the greatest picture, but the one below should give you more of a clue.
Yes, it's the new mono handle.
At first, I thought it looked odd and not lawn mower-like at all, but having seen the research that Viking put into their products I was sure there'd be a reason for this. And in fact there's three:
- It gives easier access to the grass box, which means it's easier to empty too.
- It has a different folding system to most mowers, which means it has a smaller footprint for storage (you can see this in the photo above)
- It's height adjustable.
So knowing all of that, it does makes sense, and the design grows on you, and it's something I think we'll see more of. I tell you, these Viking people are clever.
I've so much more to tell you about my visit to the Viking factory, including the future of smart gardening and the Viking iMow and our evening at the Fortress at Kufstein, but I'm saving that for another day.
This post is long enough already and stuffed full of information I never thought I'd write about before this trip, let alone be fascinated by. I hope I was able to share some of the passion and pride that was so evident throughout my visit, and I'm sure you're starting to realise why I think these are more than 'just' a lawnmower.
UPDATE: Since I've been back there's been some Stihl and Viking news. From 2019 the Stihl group will manufacture the entire product line of Viking exclusively under the Stihl brand name, so in effect Viking's green will change to Stihl orange. This picks up on lots of the points we made during the trip while talking with Viking's top management about leveraging the popularity and prestige of the Stihl brand name.
There's good news for us too, as there's growth potential for the Stihl dealer network in the UK and it's also likely that jobs at Viking's plant will be boosted as well. And after having met so many of them, I'm really pleased about that.
* This is a collaborative post with Stihl and Viking whose factory I visited as part of the UK press trip, but as always all views and opinions are my own.