Precision and flexibility in made in Italy ingenuity
The industry is increasingly expanding its footprint, involving new types of products. Research ensures innovation. By Riccardo Oldani
It is difficult to make a precise estimate of the number of Italian companies involved in mechatronics. The industry is so widespread and involves products of such different types that its size is difficult to evaluate. Nonetheless one thing is clear: Italy is a world leader, with thousands of companies concentrated in the North and significant districts in the South as well. The center par excellence is Reggio Emilia with at least 300 companies, €6 billion turnover, and 28 thousand employees. But the numbers double if you look at all of Northern Italy. What is the reason for this success? "The birth of the industry" says Cesare Fantuzzi, professor of Automation at the University of Modena and Reggio, "is due in particular to companies in the engineering sector: developers of gears, components, and machinery, which in order to improve quality and add value began, a few decades ago, to introduce electronic elements in their products so as improve quality control, synchronize operations, and make them faster and more precise."
"The business structure of Reggio is historically rich in shops and equipment manufacturers for industry and has proven to be fertile ground for this development." This was further helped by the typically Italian small-medium sized enterprise. "Our mechatronic companies" says Fantuzzi "are distinguished by a strong focus on innovation and the custom of working in partnership with other companies, to be proactive and solve the problems posed by the customer. This is a hallmark of Italian manufacturing that comes right from the small size of the company, required to be competitive through quality."
So is mechatronics an expression of Italian ingenuity? Carlo Marchisio, Vice President of Anipla-Milan, an association that works to spread the culture of automation, is convinced of this. Marchisio oversaw the creation of "Automation Story", a free downloadable e-book, a large section of which is dedicated to mechatronics. "If we had had an industrial structure based on the American model, that is large industries with the power to impose their own product, we would not have witnessed the development of Italian mechatronics. But we have small companies, which have to find their niche. We are prepared to implement unique, custom-made solutions. And mechatronics enables it to be so." One example is automatic machines for packing and packaging: "A universe of over 630 companies located mainly in Emilia Romagna, in first place in terms of revenue share and total employees, but also in Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont. Industry has taken advantage of the mechatronic approach in the last two decades but there are other areas ready for a similar path: that of machines for processing wood or tile, both sectors in which Italy is a world leader."
In general this is a time of significant growth. Alberto Sicuri, owner of Egicon located in Mirandola, one of the 94 member companies of the Reggio Emilia Unindustria Mechatronics Club which was created a decade ago to bring together local businesses and has now expanded across Italy is certain of this: "The company was founded in 2008 on the basis of years of experience in electronics, and in recent times we have had exponential growth in requests. We have partnered with leading brands in the fields of computer vision and robotics, such as Cognex and Kuka, and started to develop embedded devices for quality control, compliance, and also to guide and govern robots. Last year orders almost doubled and the fields of application are expanding: machinery for marble and plastic, production lines for medical companies. Manufacturers of home appliances as well as agricultural and aerospace machinery contact us ever more frequently to explore the use of cooperative robots, able to work side by side with humans and to make production processes more flexible."
Flexibility is a widespread need that arouses ever more interest in mechatronics and the need for knowledge. One way in which this need is met is with meetings for businesses, such as the Forum Meccatronica (Mechatronics Forum), a traveling event conceived in 2014 by Messe Frankfurt Italia and the SPS IPC Drives Italia trade fair in Parma in collaboration with Anie Automation. The second edition of the Mecatronics Forum is scheduled to be held in Lazise on Lake Garda, on 29 October.
Above all what is needed is intense research and development. Italy appears to be very well equipped to meet this need. Research by the IRSO Foundation of Milan and the Antares Centre for Economic Research in Forlì has demonstrated this with a map of the sector's R&D offerings in Northern Italy. Lorenzo Ciapetti, one of the authors of the study, states "We have identified about 300 research centers, both public and private, at least 52 of which are particularly oriented toward mechatronics. These are very well equipped facilities with modern equipment that are located very close to the companies with which they work. The only limitation is perhaps the only partial exploitation of their potential, they are still too localized and not based enough on an inter-regional business approach." Mechatronics, however, seems to have succeeded, at least in part, in activating the exchange between research and industry that has always been considered one of the Achilles heels of the Italian production system and in this sense it also offers itself as a role model. The mapping of research allowed the authors of the IRSO-Antares study to identify future Italian mechatronics development trends: the hottest, in anticipation of an increasing use of industry 4.0 technologies and concepts, include the ever stronger integration between man and machine, continuous monitoring and diagnostics, and the automation and robotization of processes.
Innovative applications of mechanics and sensors: the five nominees for the Italian Mechatronics Award
Centralized driving controls. The steering wheel becomes a sensor
"Cold innovation produces words, hot innovation produces evolution and progress." This is how Gino Mainardi, Managing Director of Cobo, sums up his strategy on the joint track of innovation and mechatronics. The Brescian Group is among the leaders in the production and design of electrical parts for agricultural machinery, industrial vehicles, cars, and motorcycles. The goal is to achieve a stronger position in the market of integrated solutions and supplies for Off-Highway vehicles.
According to the four points already on the agenda: "The first is to add value to machines of any displacement. The second, more of a goal, is to reduce the number of components and increase their performance: in other words, do more with less. The third point is hi-tech, understood as increasing the use of technology. And the fourth is to work on new integrated systems." The "integrated" innovation is the steering column, the latest in the Cobo line: "It's a device that centralizes the driving controls and allows a driver to never look away," says Mainardi. The product will make its debut in Louisville, Kentucky, at ICUEE. There are two models in the launch phase: one with traditional mechanics and one with "steer by wire", the automated control system for driving." The wheel itself becomes a sensor and sends the necessary information to the control unit. We are talking about the cabin for the latest generation vehicles, where the operator is connected and uses his smartphone as a "bridge" to send and receive data." Everything that happens in the cabin is geo-referenced and linked via GPS, thanks to a microchip built-in to the column. "It is a decisive element for telemetry and e-service. The major benefit is that you receive all this with four screws in the floor and a cell phone."
€250 million turnover in 2014
Approximately 70% of sales are for foreign markets
The discipline that studies the analysis, the design, the realization, and the maintenance of physical devices in which there is a mechanical component whose functionality is controlled and/or monitored by an electronic system through the use of sensors, actuation systems, and electronic processing of the signal.
34,000 Businesses (8.2% of all Italian manufacturing companies)
540,000 Employees (14.1% of all Italian manufacturing companies)
€127 billion aggregate turnover (14% of manufacturing companies)
€60 billion Export (20.5% of manufacturing companies)
€35 billion value added (17.6% of manufacturing companies)
41,837 Average productivity (value added per employee in €)
26,602 Average productivity (in €) of the manufacturing industry overall