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Ahlberg Cameras

Ahlberg Cameras manufactures cameras used in nuclear power stations. It is a problem for the company that standards for electrical safety and the inspection of nuclear facilities differ between Europe and the US. This means that a great deal of money and time is used to certify the products for different markets. A free trade agreement would be a huge benefit here, by setting standards that are valid both in EU member states and the US.


Ahlberg Cameras was founded in 1981 by Ulf Ahlberg. He was working as an inspector of nuclear power plants and realised that the camera equipment used needed to be improved.  Ulf retired some years ago, and the company is now being led by his son, Joakim. The company has its manufacturing in Norrtälje, where the head offices are also located, and its products include: underwater cameras for inspection in nuclear power plants; air-mounted surveillance cameras for process monitoring in nuclear power plants; illumination for underwater locations in the nuclear power industry, and advanced software for image processing. The company also produces tailor-made solutions based on customer specifications. In this case, each system is manufactured from scratch, and in certain cases only a single installation is made.


Ahlberg also has offices in Varberg, where its product development is located, and a sales and service office in the US. Ahlberg’s products are currently installed in approximately one third of the 400 nuclear energy reactors in the world. The company has many customers in South Korea and Japan, but the US is by far its largest market. It is also the country in the world with most reactors, and Joakim Ahlberg believes that the potential for increased sales is greatest in the US.


“The US is without doubt our largest market. We are currently selling products to just over half of the reactors there, and this means that there is a great potential to sell more.”


The American market accounts for approximately one third of the net sales of Ahlberg Cameras, which is currently EUR 5-7 million per year.


One of the applications of the cameras is during annual inspections of the reactors. A reactor is taken offline each year for refuelling and inspection of welds, etc. The Ahlberg cameras can be used to reveal any damage to the welds that may have arisen, and that may require repair. If it becomes apparent that the available cameras are not sufficient, new cameras must be made available in a hurry. An offline reactor costs approximately USD 1 million per day.


“We see 50,000 dollars ticking away every hour. So rapid delivery is very important. The customers want the equipment as soon as possible, and if we don’t have the products in store they will go to one of our competitors instead,” says Joakim Ahlberg.


Ahlberg Cameras has a sales and service office in Wilmington, North Carolina, in order to be able to deliver cameras as rapidly as possible. This is where Joakim Ahlberg believes that one of the advantages of a free trade agreement between the EU and the US would make itself felt.

“The import procedures into the US are currently rather complex. We usually send the goods to our office and then send them onwards to the customer, in order to make the customs procedure simpler. We gain better control of the process in this way, and can get things through customs in two days. If we instead choose to send them directly to the customer, it can take a week before they arrive. And remember – our customers are in a hurry! If we instead say to the customers ‘We have these items in store in Sweden: they’ll be here in three days’, there is a risk that the products get stuck in customs and it takes a week to deliver them. Naturally, the customers become upset. Sometimes it has even happened that they have cancelled the order for goods that are stuck in customs.”


Joakim Ahlberg believes that if import duties were completely removed, in association with a free trade agreement, it would become easier to get things through customs. All that they have to do then is to check that illegal products are not being sent.


A second issue concerns the different standards in different markets. The US uses the UL standard for electrical safety, which corresponds to the CE standard that Europe, for example, uses. The ASME standard is used in the US for the inspection of nuclear power plants. This is also similar to the standard used in Europe, but not identical. Since different standards are used, products must be certified a second time, if they are to be sold on the American market.


“If we design a product and want to sell it to a federal unit in the US that requires UL compliance, we must have the product certified by a certification company. There are Swedish companies than do it, but it’s very expensive and takes months to obtain such certification. So obtaining UL certification is a major process. People come and inspect our factory. And if it didn’t quite satisfy the requirements, since they differ from the requirements for CE certification, the inspection has to be repeated. Inspections are carried out annually.”


Joakim Ahlberg points out that CE labelling is easier to obtain. The procedure is simpler, and the labelling is recognised throughout the world, while UL labelling is recognised only in North America. In addition, the CE standard is more flexible, which makes it possible to make a product that can be approved under both the UL and the CE systems. A free trade agreement in which the regions agree about a common standard would be of great benefit here.


“The greatest problem is that it takes a very long time and energy to acquire both UL and CE certification. The process is time-consuming and expensive. This affects all companies that export to the US – the time and money it takes to get products certified. And you have to repeat the whole process when the next version of a product is launched, which delays product development. Some companies hesitate to certify each version of their products, and prefer to wait for the next version, particularly if it is expected to be launched soon after. Such considerations can lead to products being launched later on certain markets, and this means that you are not as competitive here.”


Joakim Ahlberg is convinced that sales will increase if trade barriers between Europe and the US are reduced by the free trade agreement TTIP, since the US is the largest market for Ahlberg Cameras. Increased sales will in turn mean that Ahlbergs will have to take on more personnel. He also points out that the free trade agreement would make it more natural for American companies to purchase from Europe.


“At the moment, dealing with foreign companies feels a bit strange for them. I’m sure that it’s possible to tie the US and the EU more tightly together, such that they approach each other more closely. The TTIP free trade agreement would be a signal that we are easy to collaborate with.”


Of course, this means also that it would be easier for Ahlberg’s American competitors to sell their products on the European market. But Joakim Ahlberg doesn’t see this as a problem.


“I believe in free competition. The company with the best product should be the one to win, not the one that has the ‘best’ trade barriers.”


Tags: SMEs

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