Swiss Army Knife

Multitasking tools are making proactive maintenance easier

Oct. 10, 2022
Thomas Wilk explores the relationship between Swiss army knives and predictive maintenance.

One of my twin 9-year-olds recently asked an intriguing technology question.

We were at the family dinner table, and the question had stumped him and his friends earlier that day, so he was hoping one of us had the answer. “Patrick and I were talking today, and we want to know: was there a Swiss army knife before Swiss army knives?”

The question stumped all of us, even the 11-year-old, who just started middle school and currently knows everything. Our family has a phones-down rule at the dinner table, so at that moment none of us could appeal to the higher courts of Google and Wikipedia.

The answer surprised us all. The familiar red knife originated in Ibach, Switzerland, and was first produced in 1891 when the Karl Elsener company won a contract to produce the Swiss Army’s Modell 1890 knife. The tool needed to be suitable for use by the army in opening canned food, as well as for performing basic maintenance on the Swiss service rifle. The knife handle was made of black wood and did not include the white cross or any other logo, and the toolset included a screwdriver and reamer for rifle maintenance as well as a can opener and the actual knife blade.

But were there ever earlier versions of this kind of tool? There is an interesting reference in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick to “Sheffield contrivances, assuming the exterior – though a little swelled – of a common pocket knife; but containing, not only blades of various sizes, but also screw-drivers, cork-screws, tweezers, awls, pens, rulers, nail-filers and countersinkers.” If that sounds fantastic to you, then head over to to take a look at one of these contrivances.

This story felt like it was worth sharing based on its connection to this month’s cover story, our latest set of collected PdM mini-case studies. One of the common elements is the use of tools that combine previously disparate technologies to get the job done.

In one case study, the plant team used the UE Systems Grease Caddy 201 to simultaneously lubricate bearings and monitor ultrasound levels to avoid over- or under-lubrication. In another case study, a power company in Illinois deployed the Lumada APM solution from Hitachi Energy that combines pre-built asset models with real-time condition monitoring data on more than 2,000 transformers to identify assets at highest risk of failure. This month’s Tech Toolbox and Asset Manager columns also take deep dives into the ways that asset management software is being wielded like a Swiss army knife to help integrate siloed data sets and accelerate fault detection and isolation.

The irony of course is that even a Swiss army knife can only be used on one problem at a time. It’s a good reminder to focus your predictive maintenance tools and efforts on a specific problem, and enjoy the ways that modern multi-purpose tools can solve that problem more quickly than ever.

About the Author: Thomas Wilk

Thomas Wilk joined Plant Services as editor in chief in 2014. Previously, Wilk was content strategist / mobile media manager at Panduit. Prior to Panduit, Tom was lead editor for Battelle Memorial Institute's Environmental Restoration team, and taught business and technical writing at Ohio State University for eight years. Tom holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MA from Ohio State University.