The development of the AXE system was the first and the most important assignment when Ellemtel started its operations in July 1970. The task consisted of designing an electronic switch that would serve the two owners' somewhat different purposes. For Televerket, the Swedish PTT, obtaining a switch that was specially designed and adapted to the Swedish telephone network's characteristics was a primary concern. Ericsson, on the other hand, was primarily interested in export markets and therefore wanted a switch that would be suitable for as many international telephone systems as possible.
The meaning of the designation AXE is not completely clear, but most sources agree that Automatic experimental Electronic switch is the most likely interpretation. Project manager for AXE development was Bengt-Gunnar Magnusson, who had been recognized as Sweden best engineer. The first task was to evaluate Ericsson and Televerket's previous proposals for switch designs. Ericsson's plans for further development of its AKE switch had been cast in a less favorable light, following the Australian PTT's selection for a large order of an American switch, rather than the AKE.
The three organizations each produced specifications for how the new system should function based on their different perspectives. Ellemtel developed a proposal for the new switch's system architecture, while Ericsson and Televerket developed two different requirements specifications for the operations that the switch should be able to perform, how much it should cost, how many subscribers it should handle, etc. This work was largely complete in 1971, and the three parties initiated a dialogue that resulted in a number of conclusions regarding the requirements specifications for the new switch.
During 1972, Ellemtel developed a detailed proposal for the new switch's design. The proposal included developing a dedicated microprocessor to control the switch, which would lead to a fierce conflict over the AXE project. The reason was that Ericsson in parallel with the AXE project had continued development of its AKE switch. The additional cost of SEK 100 million in the AXE project for a dedicated project was too high to allow continuation of the AKE project. Televerket supported Ellemtel's AXE proposal, and after considerable internal turmoil, Ericsson's management decided not to go ahead with the AKE project and instead decided in May 1972 to devote all resources to AXE. This was in practice the breakthrough for the AXE project.
Following formal approval of the AXE project, there was an intensive period of development during which Ellemtel produced the system's hardware and software. From a technical perspective, the AXE was revolutionary in several ways, particularly through its advanced modular system architecture, which made it a system with several dimensions. The design of the new switch also included the development of the Plex programming language, a high-level language specifically designed for telephone systems. This was based on Eriplex, a high-level language previously developed by Ericsson for the AKE switch.
In 1974, Ellemtel decided to freeze all proposed modifications of the AXE system in order to ensure that the first prototype AXE station would be ready for Ericsson's 100th anniversary in 1976. The prototype was installed in Televerket's station in Södertälje. Although Ericsson was able to demonstrate the first rudimentary AXE station in time for the anniversary celebration, the switch was not completely functional. The real start of operations took place in early 1977. By the end of the 1970s, additional AXE deliveries were made to Finland, France, Sweden, Australia and Saudi Arabia. Although the basic design of the switch was established, several of these orders resulted in important enhancements of the AXE system.
The development costs for the AXE project amounted to about SEK 500 million, of which Ericsson's share was about three fourths. While the development costs for the AXE were high, its importance for Ericsson was enormous. According to former president and chairman Björn Svedberg, it would have been a catastrophe for Ericsson not to have developed the AXE system. Instead, Ericsson was transformed during the 1980s from a traditional electro-mechanical manufacturer to a high-tech electronics producer.
With AXE, Ericsson in the early 1980s had the market's most advanced and flexible switching system, which doubled the company's market share and facilitated its entry into the important US market. Perhaps the most important result was that this extremely flexible switching system made Ericsson a major player in mobile telephony at an early stage. By 1992, Ericsson had received orders for nearly 400 AXE switching station for mobile telephony, corresponding to 40 percent of the global market.
Author: Mats Fridlund