Mechatronics and 4.0: How Assembly in Italy is Changing

Understanding the sector of machine and assembly systems manufacturers from a numerical point of view, but also analyzing the main trends in terms of technology and market. With these objectives, and with the partnership of AIdAM, professor Giambattista Gruosso from Politecnico di Milano conducted a survey describing a sector that is “very lively, continually growing and full of expectations”.

by Fabrizio Dalle Nogare

The survey “Analysis of the technological needs of the assembly machine sector”, conducted by the team of Giambattista Gruosso, professor at the Dipartimento di Elettronica, Informazione e Bioingegneria, Politecnico di Milano, involved a sample of 34 AIdAM member companies, including machine manufacturers and assembly component manufacturers. The study – presented last May at Kilometro Rosso in Bergamo – offered many interesting ideas. We talked about it with professor Gruosso.

What factors pushed you to define the assembly sector in Italy as lively and full of expectations?
First of all, the analysis of the financial statements filed and referred to the period 2007-2016, which take into account not only the company turnover, but also the number of employees, investments in R & D and profitability. These show that the sector has suffered the crisis of 2008 but indicators have been increasing since 2011, exceeding pre-crisis levels.
Especially the most structured companies have been able to invest in technology and find innovative technical solutions focusing on mechatronics and, more recently, on the digitization of production

Innovating to overcome the crisis more quickly, in short…
There are those who knew how to do it, developing innovations that were then catalogued as “Industry 4.0”. This categorization allowed companies in the assembly sector to standardize and capitalize solutions and processes implemented for a particular project. The formalization of 4.0 has in fact created a new culture, especially allowing machine manufacturers to reuse these solutions in multiple projects.

The survey consists of a part more focused on economics and another part that is more closely related to technologies. With reference to the analysis of financial statements, what are the most characteristic aspects of the sector?
The profitability of small and medium-sized companies seems to be higher than that of larger companies, also thanks to the use of technologies that increase production efficiency.
Then, both the more structured companies and the SMEs increased their assets and investments, even before the National Industry 4.0 Plan came into force.

Moving on to the purely technological part, one of the most important issues concerns the coexistence of pneumatic and electrical technologies in handling or gripping systems. Did companies interviewed express an interest in electrical solutions?
Pneumatic and electrical solutions coexist today on production machines, and on assembly machines in particular, even if compressed air will remain the reference technology for certain operations: I am thinking of the delicacy and precision that the suction cups guarantee in contact with delicate materials.
In the survey, we asked for an opinion on future trends and the answer was clear: the future should be increasingly electrical, also because factors such as noise, the impact of air leaks on a plant energy efficiency or, again, the compactness of a machine, in order to reduce its footprint are taking on greater importance. Electrical technology generally meets these needs.

We talk a lot about artificial intelligence, data analysis, advanced robotics. Do you believe that there is the right awareness of the opportunities that these new scenarios can offer?
It strongly depends on the size of the company: among medium-large entreprises there are companies that have invested a lot, for example, in data analysis systems. Another defining element is the supply chain for which the plant is designed: in the automotive sector, for example, the plant often needs to exchange data with the machine. Other sectors are less demanding in these terms.

What are the main limits to the digitization of companies in the sector?
Inadequate training, a cultural change that has not fully taken place, small-size companies. The training of technicians, in particular, should not be sectoral but rather transversal. Indeed, the issue regarding the substitution of human resources has emerged from the survey: it is necessary to foster a much wider cultural exchange within productive realities, so that it is easier to relocate internal resources.