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The relationship between new technologies and their practical application is a necessary challenge for the evolution of the production system. Today we are experiencing an era of transformation from the automated industry to the digital one, able to connect hardware and software to make processes more efficient. But at what point are we in the digital transformation? In what terms can we really talk about Industry 4.0 today in Italy?
We talk about this with Luciano Malgaroli, founder and general manager of A&T (Automation & Testing), the reference event on industrial technologies in Italy.
I believe that the Industry 4.0 plan promoted by Minister Calenda is favorably influencing our sector, with appreciable results especially in large companies, in particular in the automotive and manufacturing sectors, beyond a certain threshold. There remains a considerable gap at the level of small and medium enterprises, those that represent about 96% of the total. The next step will therefore be to involve SMEs so that they can get digital and become more competitive in a market that otherwise will most likely end up excluding them.
This gap is also visible at the media level. There is always a tendency to emphasize the role of technology in large companies, the research of MIT-like institutions rather than startups that after a while we don’t even know where they end up. Why is there no real attention paid to SMEs, the main actor of Italian industry?
I remember an episode which made me reflect a lot on this point, and I think it is useful to share it in order to convey this concept of distance. I was at a conference to present the results of an Observatory on the topics of Industry 4.0. On the stage there were some prominent figures representing names like Banca Intesa Sanpaolo, Amazon, and other giants in their respective sectors. At one point, fascinated by the examples cited, I tried to confirm this feeling with the owner of a small company who was sitting next to me. I was surprised and in a sense taken aback by his response, which was something along the lines of: “He makes it sound easy, but in my case I do not even know where to start. My day begins very early, I open the factory and I am inundated by tasking and problems of all kinds, trying to keep up with everything until late evening. And the next day I do it all over again. Where do I find the time to do Industry 4.0? I’m interested, I’m here for this, but how much does it cost? What advantages does it give me? And above all, how can I do it?“.
Costs, advantages and methods of the digital transformation are the themes around which the innovation of companies rotates. Why are certain responses slow to arrive in the case of SMEs?
The small-to-medium-sized Italian entrepreneur is an extremely practical and concrete figure as far as the company’s problems are concerned. His training is primarily technical; he is highly skilled for what he has to deal with. The problem is that the transformation processes require new skills, new ways of thinking about the organization of the company, starting from the processes already in place. And it is far from simple to move from desire to practice.
So it seems that qualified advice is needed; how do you find the right consultant? How can you be sure that you have the necessary skills to digitize your company? Based on your experience, what advice would you give to your entrepreneur friend?
I believe the digitization of a company must take place in two steps.
The first is to improve processes without having to introduce new technologies, starting from optimizing what is already in existence thanks to a lean manufacturing approach that aims at eliminating waste. In fact, very often there are established situations that could be made more efficient. A process by process analysis in order to identify the critical issues, would be the best starting point. In any case, whether we proceed or not, it would represent an evaluation moment useful for creating awareness.
At that point, after a good reorganization of the already existing processes, I think it is much simpler to implement digitization, introducing new technologies where they are needed.
If we adopted this logical path, the switch to digital could be the result of a subsequent step with the involvement of technology suppliers. I think this approach could yield some great advantages, first and foremost cost reduction and the optimization of resources; furthermore, the entrepreneur would be able to evaluate in practical terms the benefits of the consultancy on issues that pertain to him and that he knows well. He would hardly know what to do when faced with new technologies of which he is not an expert and, above all, would risk digitizing a non-competitive production process.
Secondly, a consultant would have all the necessary elements to look for the most suitable technological solutions. Digitizing a company is something absolutely tailor-made, to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and nobody knows their company better than the entrepreneur. He must lead the renewal process and have constant control over it. The consultant must help to detect the critical issues, propose solutions, evaluate alternatives, but the choices I think should be made by the entrepreneur.
The risk would otherwise be that of a leap into the dark, in which we invest in useless technology?
Not only that, I think we risk losing sight of the presuppositions and objectives on which an entrepreneurial activity is based, which are the guarantee of its success. The rush to technology is fascinating, but produces results only if it is used with full awareness. Today the real problem is an overly conservative attitude, but the opposite approach also risks becoming problematic. Buying robots and 3D printers because everybody is doing it, without knowing very clearly what you want to do, would be dangerous, both from an economic point of view and as far as the investment in research and development of the company itself is concerned.
The last question remains: “How can I do Industry 4.0?”
Where to start. Of course, the first step is always the hardest to take, but today opportunities abound. In this case, I would suggest two initiatives. The Internet offers tremendous opportunities to learn about everything that technology can offer today in an absolutely detailed manner. Often, the case studies mentioned by technology providers can be an excellent starting point. In addition to this, relationships are fundamental, because dealing with other entrepreneurs in our same situation is a unique experience. Today isolation does not make any sense, both in terms of knowledge and in terms of business, it is important to try to network as much as possible to exploit the synergies generated by the union of skills. This aspect is fundamental if we think in terms of a smart production, able to connect many technological applications to each other. I advise entrepreneurs to attend as many Observatories as possible on the subject, they may learn about them at their ConfIndustria chapters, as well as events and trade fairs where you have the advantage of being able to observe the technology at work and make contact with the parties involved.
In the latest edition of A&T you introduced Industry 4.0, a smart factory demo that demonstrates what a digitized supply chain consists of. It was immediately a great success, able to catalyze the attention of visitors, who in half an hour were able to customize a gadget and watch every step of its production.
The goal of company 4.0 was to show in a concrete way the difference between the traditional automated company and the new concept of a digitalized company. It was a difficult, very challenging bet, and we are very happy that it was successful. It was an experience that made us understand what direction to take in the future.
Historically we were dealing with a single player who managed all the steps of the production chain. Company 4.0 is a network of companies that brings together large and small businesses. We had a great system integrator like Reply which provided the MES (Manufacturing Execution System) able to monitor and manage all the processes related to production. Those processes were developed by smaller suppliers, which represent the cutting-edge in their respective sectors. The combination of highly specialized skills is one of the success factors of the digital production model.
Industry 4.0 has shown how it is possible to switch from mass production to on-demand production and it is an aspect that has surprised the majority of the visitors who still did not have the concrete perception of the benefits that it can generate.
In particular this was possible thanks to the demonstration of two aspects of Company 4.0. Firstly, the possibility of producing by giving the final customer the ability to decide based on his needs. The product is no longer imposed, standard, it is customized. The 3D configurator of Protocube Reply was able to simplify this process as much as possible by making the customization experience accessible to everyone even to those who did not have a specific culture on the subject. Secondly, we have shown how it is possible to go beyond the concepts of mass production. 3D printing allows you to start production on demand without being tied to minimum production lots. Obviously today this is not yet possible for the entire manufacturing sector, but the range of technologies and materials is constantly expanding and can therefore offer advantageous solutions to a growing number of industries.
Another crucial aspect in terms of digital transformation are the skills. How is it possible to find technicians on the market to implement such young technologies?
It is important to have a relationship with schools based on concrete experience. Bring the kids to see and touch the production. This is why at Company 4.0 we wanted to involve the ITS Foundation for ICT Piedmont which provides training courses during the five academic years of the Professional Institute. The courses have a varying duration, aimed at a specialization in various technological sectors, with the goal of training the workers who are most in demand by the labor market. In other countries, such as Germany, this kind of education already has a long tradition, and the results can be seen. We must proceed in this direction, encouraging training in technology. At company 4.0 we had 20-year-olds who tried really hard to learn how to manage all the processes, and they managed because they had the right spirit, trained to handle difficult situations and propose solutions to solve them. And this is what the smart factory calls for.
Today those who want a technical worker are practically forced to train one from within. Schools have a great responsibility and opportunity to train thousands of new workers in the context of the new professional emerging in the digital factory.
Industry 4.0 requires a Trade Fair 4.0 with new formats and new layouts to effectively communicate the digital experience.
We are working precisely in this direction on the basis of the data collected. Today we start from event registration; the personalized badge allows us to collect data concerning the visitor’s behavior at the fair, what they are more interested in, how much time they dedicate to each activity. Data collection and analysis is carried out thanks to a complex and constantly evolving IT system that allows us to make informed choices. Experiences that can directly involve the visitor, like Company 4.0, are what will increasingly differentiate a quality event with important content. It is the way we communicate these contents that makes the difference. So we will adopt an exhibition model that will tend to favor the professional, rather than the technological sectors.
Using an expression from the Enlightenment, it would be like putting the person at the center of the experience.
Yes, because today it is necessary to balance various aspects of technology communication in the context of a Trade fair, so that its visit translates into added value in terms of experience. On the one hand we have applications that, by their nature, are attractive and can catalyze the attention of the public. I think of robots, or computer graphics content, or virtual reality or sculptures made by 3D printers. People are naturally curious to try technology, regardless of whether it is directly connected to implementation in their business. Other applications, such as those related to control and management, are much more “invisible”, but indispensable in any production context. Industry 4.0 is able to give enormous advantages precisely because it is able to connect technologies that at first glance can appear very different from each other. We are convinced that proposing experience-based exhibition routes is the best way to demonstrate to the various industry professionals what advantages digital technologies can offer today.
Note – credits cover image: Reply
This post is also available in: Italiano