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Ein Mann hält eine Messer an eine Schleifmaschine.

Leisure time

How a Swiss army knife is made

Portraitfoto von Torge
Torge
Guest author, 4-Seasons
© Fotos

Lots of people have one, and almost everyone’s heard of it – the Swiss army knife. But how do you turn raw steel and plastic granules into a handy all-rounder? Transa visited Victorinox in Ibach (canton of Schwyz).

It’s a rainy day in Ibach (Schwyz) when Rainer Betschart and Tanja Stocker greet seven members of the Transa team. Six of them are in-store customer advisors, while the seventh in the group is buyer Martin. Visits to manufacturers are part of Transa’s in-depth training – and the trip on this rain-soaked day is no exception. The group follows Rainer into the factory halls. ‘We’ve got lots to see!’ They are enveloped by the noise and smell of the factory: lubricating oil and the metallic smell of hot steel offer a foretaste of the elaborate steps it takes to make a knife.

History

History: A popular souvenir

Rainer sums up 139 years of Victorinox: in 1884, Karl Elsener started a small cutler’s shop in the valley basin of Ibach. His army knife was designed to serve as a single compact tool to help Swiss Army soldiers with their tasks in the field. Over the years, Elsener perfected the manufacturing process and succeeded in mounting three tools on a spring – a novelty back then. This laid the groundwork for the ‘Officer’s and Sports Knife’, created in 1897. Stainless steel (known as INOX) was used from 1921 onwards, and so Victorinox found its name. After the Second World War, US soldiers liked the compact red knives so much that they took them home as souvenirs – and that’s how the Swiss army knife made its way from the Alps to the world. Up to 1990, the company struggled to meet the growing demand. Instead of quickly buying up production capacities abroad, Ibach focused on slow growth, sustainability and quality. Rainer believes that this foresight has now paid off: ‘Much of our manufacturing machinery has been developed in-house, which is really unusual today. This means we are independent of the uncertainties of the global market and 95% of our knives are made in Switzerland.’

Climber
Victorinox Climber
CHF 34,90
Climber view

The amount of work involved in a knife is only gradually becoming clear. In the past, the forging process was an elaborate task, but today the knife blades and individual parts are punched out from a three-millimetre strip of French or German steel. The sharp edges are then removed in giant drums and the blades are ground flat. ‘To ensure that everything fits together at the end and nothing gets jammed, no component can be too thin or too thick – we’re talking about amounts of 0.003 millimetres here.’ explains Rainer. With child-like amazement, the visitors from Transa follow him through narrow corridors as the employees go about their work. It becomes clear that Victorinox is offering an honest insight. Martin is impressed: ‘When you think about the effort that goes into making such a small knife, the price you pay is really fair. It’s fantastic that we can still do this kind of thing in Switzerland!’ Rainer stops time and time again, and the group surrounds the whirring, buzzing machines to listen to his explanations. He knows what he’s talking about: he’s been at Victorinox for 30 years now. ‘I started out as a messenger boy and distributed the post around the building – that’s how you get to know all its nooks and crannies and all its employees.’ He’s now part of company’s management, but still pauses repeatedly to chat with employees in the manufacturing team. Victorinox has expanded globally – but it’s ultimately a small family with 2,200 members around the world.

Manifacturing

Manifacturing: Swiss precision and tradition

The group continues to the next stage in the manufacturing process: after being punched out and deburred, the blanks are ground down and heated in a furnace at 1,050 degrees Celsius to obtain their final level of hardness. The punching machines produce 300 to 500 parts per minute, while employees assemble an average of 45 Victorinox pocket knives each hour. Even though the Transa team hold pocket knives in their hands every day, they’re impressed by this dexterity: the individual parts – some of them absolutely tiny – are collected from different crates, inspected in the light, turned and rotated before being placed in the correct recess in the knife. Around 145,000 knives leave the factory halls in Ibach every day. However, not all of them find their way to customers: even knives with minor flaws are filtered out – after all, quality is paramount in Ibach. Nothing can get stuck, no blade can be blunt. In short, you want nothing less than perfection. ‘Our success is also due to the fact that we focused on our core business early on and consistently perfected our production processes here,’ says Rainer with conviction.

  • Zwei Männer stehen nebeneinander und lachen.

    Rainer (left) guided Transa buyer Martin (right) and six other members of the Transa team through Victorinox’s factory.

    Photo © Torge Fahl
  • Ein Werkbank mit verschiedenen, kleinen Einzelteilen aus Metall.

    Puzzles for professionals: employees assemble up to 45 knives per hour.

    Photo © Torge Fahl
  • Nahaufnahme von vielen grauen Briketts.

    The sludge generated by the grinding process is dried, pressed into briquettes and recycled as a raw material.

    Photo © Torge Fahl
Sustainability

Sustainability: Recycled steel and waste paper

Sustainability also shapes Victorinox’s work. Blades or finished knives that fail the quality test are not disposed of, but are either recycled or repaired, or their individual parts reused. Of the 2,200 tonnes of steel processed here each year, 95% is recycled. The team in Ibach is particularly proud of having developed a recycling plant that removes the water from the grinding sludge caused by sharpening the knives and presses the resulting mass into briquettes. These are collected and professionally recycled so that they can become a knife again at some point. The packaging is also largely made of waste paper and is used in keeping with the motto ‘as little as possible, as much as necessary’. Victorinox goes a step further, too: ‘Our long-standing employees are our most valuable resource,’ says Rainer. In line with this,

employees take regular breaks to prevent physical problems caused by the heavy work. Production comes to a standstill several times a day so that the workforce can do stretching exercises together. The most important sustainability-related aspect, however, lies in manufacturing a product that delivers on its promises – and does so for decades. ‘I bought my Victorinox army knife 30 years ago and still use it today. You don’t get more sustainable than that,’ remarks Martin.

When the guests leave the factory halls, they are impressed. They all have a personal moment from their own life to share: ‘I remember my childhood and my first army knife – hung on a knife chain, of course,’ says Martin with a smile. ‘I didn’t just use the knife to sharpen the stick when I was roasting cervelat sausages, I always added a bit of artistic decoration, too – in short, a boy needs a pocket knife!’ Everyone can remember an anecdote, be it the pride of their first knife, memories of a journey through New Zealand with a Victorinox pocket knife in their bag or instances where the knife was a veritable saviour in all kinds of tricky situations. And so it becomes clear that Victorinox in Ibach doesn’t just manufacture a handy all-rounder made of crude steel – they manufacture a companion for life.

Victorinox

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