As the ABB plant in Brno, Czech Republic, celebrates its 135th anniversary explore the journey which started with 15 employees to today’s almost 2,000 employees and more than 60,000 pieces produced annually. The journey includes a change of ownership, the development of electrification, and also periods of war and revolution. Today Brno is the largest medium voltage (MV) switchgear manufacturer in Europe.
The Brno plant became part of ABB in 1993 but this was already preceded by a 106-year tradition of electrical production. The history of the factory began in the autumn of 1887 as the second oldest electrical engineering company in the entire Austro-Hungarian empire. During its existence it played a key role in the electrification of the region and although much of the factory was destroyed during the bombing of World War II, the determined employees managed to resume operation of the electrical equipment repair shop only a month later, which then played a significant role in restoring electricity supplies to the war-torn city. After years of negotiations influenced by the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the communist regime in at that time Czechoslovakia, the Brno plant became part of ABB in 1993. Since then, it has become the largest medium voltage (MV) switchgear manufacturer in Europe.
The history of the factory begins in the autumn of 1887 when its founder, Robert Bartelmus, started a production with 15 workers in a rented workshop, and during the same year a total of 11 pieces of equipment were produced there. Two years later, Robert Bartelmus added Josef Donát as another partner. Donát took over production management, while Bartelmus was in charge of the business and under the name Bartelmus-Donát, the company gained a reputation worldwide as early as 1894, when it patented an improved construction of the so-called arc lamp. The company's registered invention was the first registered patent in the entire Austro-Hungarian empire.
An important role in the electrification of the region and the beginning of instrument transformers production
At the beginning of the 20th century, the company entered the revolutionary field of building municipal power plants and introduced electricity to 200 municipalities and towns in Moravia and Bohemia, as well as to several hundred production companies. It designed and built a total of 60 power plants, mostly powered by water turbines at grain mills or steam engines and stretched 800 kilometers of mast lines from power plants to municipalities and carried out distributions in municipalities as well. The portfolio was expanded by other devices and in 1919 the very first instrument transformer was produced here. Production of instrument transformers has survived to this day and the plant is now the largest manufacturer of MV IEC instrument transformers in the world.
Also, the support of Czech education in Brno has been close to the company since its inception. This tradition continued in 1899, when the Brno University of Technology was founded. In 1902, the company released the technical genius Jozef Sumec from its services, who thus became the first professor of electrical engineering at this school.
Merge with Škoda Group
The intensive development of the electrification of Czechoslovakia after 1919 brought about the creation of many new electrical engineering companies, which expanded the competition of Bartelmus-Donát. The Pilsen-based Škoda Group also seized business opportunities in the electrification of Czechoslovakia, which established a specialized plant in 1922. However, Škoda did not have enough experience in electrical production, and therefore in the first years the factory stagnated. In a wide range of electrical production, the more advanced Bartelmus-Donát factory took advantage of this situation and accepted Škoda's offer to merge with the group in 1927. In the same year, the design department of the Brno factory of the former Bartelmus-Donát company became the headquarters of its electrical engineering for Škoda.
Like a phoenix from the ashes
In 1945 the factory did not escape the devastating consequences of WWII and a large part of it was destroyed during the bombing of Brno. However, with the greatest determination to resume production as soon as possible, employees set to work on clearing the factory's debris, and a month later they managed to resume operation of the electrical equipment repair shop, which then played a significant role in restoring electricity supplies to war-torn Brno.
During the war, the factory's technical documentation archive was moved to the ground floor of the main factory building with a reinforced concrete ceiling. Thanks to this, it was protected from air bombs and all the know-how of the factory was saved.
State enterprise Electrotechnical plant of Julius Fučík (EJF)
In 1949, the factory separated from the Škoda concern and a decision was made in the highest political circles that the company would bear the name of one of the icons of the communist regime, a Nazi-martyred journalist - Julius Fučík.
In 1952, the development department team began to work on the development of a new generation of measuring transformers insulated with epoxy resin, which is today still used as an insulator for these transformers. A completely new type series of support and bushing transformers was born. The design had been significantly simplified, the transformers reduced in volume and weight, and gained better operational and physical properties.
In 1953, the company produced its first MV switchgear. In 1975, the new switchgear assembly hall was put into operation, and in 1977, the productivity of work in the switchgear production was about twenty times higher than in 1960. This type of production continues to this day and the plant became the largest MV switchgear manufacturer in Europe.
History of ABB in Brno
The beginnings of ABB, or its predecessor, in Brno date back to 1983, when EJF purchased a license from Brown Boweri for the production of medium-voltage circuit-breakers of the VF type with a sulfur fluoride extinguishing medium. In a short time, the factory has become the largest licensed producer of these switches in the world, with 5- 6,000 devices per year. The positive experience of this collaboration inspired the ABB management at the time to create a joint switch-disconnection company, in which ABB was to have 51 % and the EJF 49 %. The first official meeting with ABB's Swiss representatives to finalize the terms of cooperation took place in Brno in the first half of 1989. However, the negotiations themselves were disrupted by the Velvet Revolution on 17 November of the same year, which led to the fall of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.
As early as January 1990, ABB management came to the EJF to buy the entire company and after three years of negotiations, the agreement between ABB and the National Property Fund on the sale of the EJF was completed, and in February 1993 ABB became the 100 % owner of the shares. The new company, with 1,560 employees, became one of the first companies in the country owned entirely by a foreign investor, and the first company in Central and Eastern Europe, fully owned by ABB.
Significant growth under the ABB brand
Thanks to the inflow of capital, which enabled a significant modernization of production halls and automation of the processes, the plant gradually gained in importance and now forms one of the most important sites in the world for ABB Electrification’s Distribution Solutions division. Today, the plant is the biggest IEC Instrument Transformers & Sensors producer in the world, the biggest MV Switchgear factory in Europe, and has global key responsibility for the development of these products.
The 135-year development of the company was not only full of significant successes, but also without complications. ABB's entry enabled the transformation from a traditional state-owned electrical engineering company to a modern plant supplying top-quality products to the most demanding projects around the world such as the world’s tallest building Burj Khalifa, London Underground or the largest European Facebook’s datacenter in Lulea, Sweden.
But the journey of the plant does not end with these successes. On the contrary, this year it has opened a completely new production hall for the assembly of gas-insulated switchboards, the production of which has been transferred from Germany, and is installing a new, robotic sensor casting line to meet the steeply growing demand and maintain the plant’s number one position in this market.
Explore the factory on this virtual tour: ABB Brno (virtualvisit.cz)