40 years after its birth, ASSOMAC draws up the new “Sector Report” which focuses on the evolution of manufacturing processes and the priorities of innovation between productivity, management and sustainability, and presented it to its associates during the assembly’s annual event held in Milano last November.
In the last decade, the development of innovative technologies has led to more flexible, energy efficient and environmentally sustainable production processes. Manufacturing has also evolved through advances in supply chains, economics, consumer needs, and engineering design, becoming a capital (including human manpower) and automation-intensive process. Data and product innovation also play a significant role in the industry. But, in the era of industry and production 4.0, modern production is still grappling with the principles of Taylorism, which seek to find a balance between man and machine in terms of productivity and economy. Modern manufacturing is at the heart of global development, from raw materials to semi-finished and finished products, but, even today, despite a growing number of breakthrough innovations and technologies, some fundamental challenges remain unresolved. Sustainability, increase in energy costs, procurement difficulties, individualization, digitalization and lack of qualified personnel are just some of the factors that hinder the growth of a sector that represents excellence in the world. As stated in the report, 2021 was a positive year, given the average in sectoral growth in terms of turnover which stood at around 30%, thanks to a strong recovery in sales on the domestic and foreign markets. But what awaits us in the near future? We talked about it with the President of the National Association of Italian Manufacturers of Technologies for Footwear, Leather Goods and Tannery, Maria Vittoria Brustia, the Director Roberto Vago and Agostino Apolito, Senior Manager, who recently joined the Assomac staff.
The challenges to where the sector is subjected, yes, are great, but at the same time they also represent an extraordinary opportunity that lays the foundations for effective long-term market competitiveness. How is Assomac moving in this direction?
Roberto Vago: “On the strong pressure from the Presidency, we are making various brainstorming on how our Association can evolve, what are the new opportunities to seize, where to propose our offer and, above all, how to intensify the promotional activity of our businesses internationally.”
The world scenario is undergoing profound change…
“The industrial system itself is changing internationally, and we have already been saying this for a couple of years. Today the question is: how, where and with what formula do we present ourselves to this new world? By not having to see the crystal ball we have to rely solely on facts. Let’s take Vietnam for example: the last trade fair appointment that was held in the country has represented a moment of verification of a more generalized situation, which is that of the Far East in which we and our companies have been working and investing for years. The situation today is so confused that it becomes necessary to make a new political-industrial analysis of the whole area. At this moment nobody is able to bet one single chip on these markets. Take for example Hong Kong, which until recently was considered a real center of gravity: Today Hong Kong is no longer there. Period. In my opinion, it will never go back to being the reference we knew. The game is actually very complex, both for geopolitical issues and for issues of manufacturing logic. The question we must ask ourselves today is whether the logic of mass manufacturing, therefore 20,000 pairs of white shoes every day, 365 days a year, still holds. Or, as some put it hypothetically, we have reached the point where we have to rethink the production model in a small but internationally widespread manufacturing company. The real question is, do we move the product or do we move the process? This is the dilemma that we face today. Surely the data says that the production batches decrease in terms of quantities per batch. To maintain the same numbers, therefore, the frequency has to increase. So, it means 2,000 pairs, no longer 20,000, but 2,000 pairs multiplied by ten. There are still 20,000 pairs but more machines are needed to make them and, certainly, a completely different analysis of the production process. This is the first major issue on which, in my opinion, Italy can play a winning game because we come from the logic of the industrial district of small-scale and customized production. I firmly believe that we can actually take inspiration from our great industrial heritage.”
Italy is still the only country to have a complete production chain, which starts from the animal up to the box that contains the shoes. Where is the problem then?
“The logic of a complete supply chain certainly remains one of the visions that belongs to us the most. I believe that, if we want to take a step forward, and I have also repeated this at the ministerial level, we must think of integration logic process rather than product integration logic. This, unfortunately, is a lack that we have been carrying around for years.”
Why is it so difficult to overcome this obstacle?
“Let’s talk about resilience, for example. I do so by telling you an anecdote. From one of my previous activities, I came into contact with a very important institute in Lecco(Italy), the Institute of Condensed Matter Chemistry and Energy Technologies, which studies shape memory alloys. Shape memory alloys are alloys that at certain temperatures take on a specific shape, while at high temperatures they change their structure and become free. Therefore, to paraphrase the concept of shape memory, we could say that it is basically remembering how it was. Here, what scares me a lot is that the word resilience is not synonymous with adaptation but with shape memory. The real risk we are running is that, after this period, everyone wants to go back to what was before. And so let’s go back to the concept where companies restructure themselves, yes, but trying to do exactly what they did in the past, let’s say until 2019.”
Do you think it is linked to a purely generational factor or is it such a deeply rooted thought that it is difficult to think of a real evolution of the industrial system?
“I think it’s an ingrained concept. The new generations certainly have a more innovative vision but it is the model that has not changed because if this were the case we would not be here talking about integrated processes. And it’s not only in our sector… The ability to be system integrators, i.e., to offer turnkey solutions, is something that goes beyond simply putting together a row of machines: it means industrial process, it means prototyping, means having a model… And we, if we really wanted to, would already be able to do it also at a territorial level.”
Is there a lack of overview and a true ability to create a system?
“Yes. There are some incubators that theorize it. The point is that going from saying to doing is not automatic. We are working a lot on the interconnection between machines, i.e. on a common language, a sort of plug and play, in the production chain. In recent months we have been developing a project with the Milan Polytechnic dedicated to the textile industry which allows access to a new level of communication between machines, a higher level made up of digitalization, data information, traceability and energy saving, which allows us to make a real leap in quality.”
What are your associates asking you today?
“From an associative point of view, what they ask from us most is to explain to them how to undertake this path. It would be nice if one day someone arrives in Vigevano, or in any other district, with the idea of making a pencil and returns home with the pencil ready because he has found everything he needed: the prototype, the production layout, the contacts with suppliers, etc. Everything in one place. I know it’s a dream… .”
A dream that could come true when someone asks, right?
“Yes, absolutely. The problem is that we are not yet able to give a single answer.”
What would you need to be able to give this answer?
“I’ll tell you my story: I worked as an expert in a technical institute between 1970 and 1975. My professors were technicians who worked in the company in the afternoon and devoted themselves to teaching in the morning. This type of professors not only provided information useful for knowledge, they will pass on the culture of the company to you. When it was time to leave school, it was the teachers themselves who offered you the possibility of going to work within companies. Here, this mechanism, which was also made up of large companies such as Eni, Snam Progetti, or other large groups, was a real training ground where you could learn, train and grow. Today, businesses in our area need people who are already trained. But to train people you need a trainer, and it’s already a challenge to find him; secondly, we need kids who are convinced that building machinery and traveling the world isn’t so terrible. The question is: “Do these guys know that?” Answer: No. No one ever told him. The information is totally lacking; therefore, these professional figures are not there. There is a lack of trainers, the ones we have are not really up to date and, thirdly, we do not have a unified training path throughout Italy.”
Even though you’ve been working on it for years, how come you don’t come to a therefore?
“In my opinion, the problems are primarily of an organizational nature because every actor is convinced that he knows how to run the best school in the world at home. Our Association is already talking to the ITS (Technical Institute) with the aim of organizing a shared training course but at the moment everything is very indefinite. Here too I would like to give an example: during my tenure I have attended numerous training courses around the world on the tanning process, from Indonesia to South America. In Italy I attended only two.”
Is this for real?
“Yes, only two of us asked. Why are they so in demand around the world while there is no interest in Italy? I keep asking myself this question and have not yet been able to find out an answer. This is the first aspect. The second is the presence of many different Institutes that travel on totally independent tracks, effectively preventing the creation of an educational proposal that makes sense. There are many foreigners who express their willingness to come and study in Italy, but the only accredited and recognized school in the world is in Northampton, England. In Northampton, where, hopefully, there are five tanneries, you can get a degree. Here it is not yet possible, it is inconceivable.”
Agostino Apolito intervenes: “The efforts the entrepreneurs make to be able to pass the concept of a qualified secondary technical training is frustrated by the difficulty in identifying the interlocutors who can set up, by law, recognized training activities. For the first time, for ten years now, we have reached a 5th EQF level: this is how the functional qualification levels that the European Union has had for twenty years are called. We had the 4th, which was the High School, and we started from the 7th with the University. We have an objective error. In Germany, with the dual system, they are twenty years ahead of us. We, with an enormous effort, manage to bring home about 12/15 thousand students while in Germany there are 250 thousand. It is therefore clear that the first thing to do is to create governance that is capable of giving a real answer to the problem.”
Maria Vittoria Brustia continues: “The problem has deep roots because it is the families themselves that do not direct young people towards professions inherent in our sector. ASSOLOMBARDA has made worthy attempts in the Vigevano area but the response has been truly ridiculous compared to the employment potential that exists. Before directing young people towards one study rather than another, it would be good to look at the needs of the world of work. And if a boy has the talent to be a poet, it is right that he continues on his path but, today as in today, it is equally important to evaluate schools that can give concrete outlets to young people and offer stable employment.” Roberto Vago restarted: “It’s actually the same problem: from one side we hear from our associates that they can’t find specialists within the sector, on the other we can’t find the right interfaces with which to talk. We understand that being simple manufacturers of a machine and being suppliers of an integrated system are two very different models but, if companies need to grow in terms of specialized professional figures, therefore programmers, engineers or designers, our reference customer/ brand must be sure that these figures are able to communicate with those who produce the machines otherwise, in fact, communication stops there too. I can make the most beautiful car in the world but if there isn’t a person on the other side who understands how to use it, it’s all useless.”
Industry 4.0. Where are we at?
“We are neither forward nor backward. We are at a standstill. Our companies have done everything possible, now we have to go up a step and to do this we basically need two things: what I was telling you before, that is, to create a platform for dialogue between machines; on the other hand, we need qualified technicians because, in all this great concept, which is what our Carlo Alberto Carnevale Maffè said during the assembly, we are moving towards a world which is that of servitisation ” (is the transition from selling a product to providing services with the goal of creating greater value for the customer).”
Agostino Apolito: “Reduced to the minimum terms, the important aspect is the finalization, or rather the sale. I take as an example a large multinational manufacturer of turbines for offshore platforms, gas and natural gas pipelines, which had to completely transform its business model. To move the flows, it has defined a sales model where the fulcrum is not the turbine but the service. And in the service, there is a whole predictive technology, of analysis, of data management that allows the company to accompany the customer, not only from the point of view of use of the asset (because it is not an asset owned by the customer) but also in the optimization of data reading that the use of this machine also offers remotely, for example using virtual reality. In fact, if necessary, the same number of engineers and technicians present on site is no longer needed because there is a team connected remotely that analyzes data in real time and communicates the operations to be performed. Looking into the future, this will be the evolution of our sector: the ability to read data, in my opinion, is the focal point. And it is a dissonant aspect to have a government that supports the training path 4.0 but has less support for industry 4.0 which represents the real revamp of an international competitive model. Roberto spoke about it earlier: for us, international competitiveness is given by the ability of a government to offer its companies the possibility of being competitive, not only with a national system but also with a cutting-edge technological system. In my opinion, we have lost this challenge, despite the great commitment of companies.”
Can we not therefore speak of real support from the Government to companies?
Roberto Vago: “I recently had a meeting with some politicians and we talked about it again. And it won’t be the last time… We are all over again: the problem is the interlocutor. And with all due respect, I don’t want to make it a question of political color, but there is an objective difficulty in translating into concrete actions what we, associations and industrialists have been saying for a long time.”
What would be the next step to make industrialization 4.0 faster?
“It is essential to develop criteria on credit eligibility. Whether it’s called Industry 4.0 or ecological reconversion, we have to clarify and create precise rules so as to allow companies to contact credit institutions easily. I believe that the President no longer has a voice no matter how many times she has reiterated it: we have a model, that of the “Targa Verde” (green plaque), which is an excellent indicator of sustainability. Like it or not, it can be perfected, like all things. We are the only ones in the world who have done it and, since there is no other valid model at the moment, why not make use of it? It will happen in Rome where it launched a public announcement for electric buses to which only Chinese companies responded because they are the only ones able to comply with the specifications. The result is European money is being spent in China. This is another concept that we have expressed in the assemblies and meetings we attended: we spend along our supply chain. Are you an Italian customer? Do you produce in Italy? Now let’s make it simple: spend your money with Italian suppliers. In the event that you do not find the machine you need in Italy, expand to the European basin. If you can’t find it even in Europe then expand internationally but don’t do it from the beginning otherwise what’s the point. And here we reconnect to a central issue, that of reshoring. At the moment we are of the general opinion that it is possible to move the process rather than the product. If then the reshoring takes place in Italy, in Vigevano, rather than in Porto, Portugal, I don’t think it’s a big problem for us. The theme is to favor me in order to have the convenience of bringing the productions back home.”
2023 will be a crucial year, what are the activities you have planned?
Maria Vittoria Brustia: “In January we will formulate the program for the next two years. Obviously, we will return to the themes already covered in the previous two years, therefore the theme of communication, the theme of relationships with brands and the technological theme of the communication protocol between machines. There will be two strands: one facing inwards, therefore technological and also managerial growth of our companies and our entrepreneurs also through the expansion of courses with Bocconi University; the second outwards, with the aim of making known even more of how good we are, of how technological, digital, recyclable and sustainable we are, in order to push international attention towards the Italian technology of Assomac members which is the best.”
Roberto Vago: “One of the projects we hope to complete, in collaboration with textile machinery manufacturers, is the recyclability index of our machinery, i.e., how much a machine can be recovered at the end of its life and, therefore, how many components can have a second life and be reused. The sustainability balance of the production process is another very important issue. Each shoe factory will have to explain how it manages its entire system, from energy to the recovery of waste products, to the reuse/ reconversion of the machines themselves. This must apply to all sectors because we must make it clear that in us they find a means, a support to demonstrate that their production process is sustainable, not only from the point of view of the product because it is a product that complies with European rules but also the process by which it is done. For consumers it has become essential, we must all work together in this direction.”
Maria Vittoria Brustia e Roberto Vago