Reading the Economist on the weekend, I learned that Italy's economy is not recovering from the recession as quickly as other countries; even Greece is doing better. Then I remembered an article I wrote last year for Corporate Knight's blog, that described how Italian business was changing. I republish it here.
In 1876, at the Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia, visitors were agog at the giant Corliss engine, the biggest steam engine in the world and a huge technical achievement. Visitors to the fair were amazed by the first telephone, the first typewriter, the first bottle of Heinz catsup and the first use of Kudzu as a form of erosion control.
I felt like one of those visitors, wandering among the halls of the Lamiera Fair in Bologna, a guest of Machines Italia and the Italian Trade Commission. I am looking at giant machines that make pipe, work sheet metal, weld, cut and bend. There were robots doing everything from moving things to welding to serving drinks. The Italian machine tool industry is huge, exporting over seventy percent of its production around the world. It is made up of a lot of small, primarily family owned companies that don’t compete on volume but on sophistication and customization.
In a press conference, Mr Luigi Galdabini, Vice President of the machine tool industry association (and head of http://www.galdabini.it/), explained the Italian design ideology and the future of the technology. He noted that Italians are the champions of special machines, "It is a trend you see in a lot of italian design and manufacture: We like good things, well done. Our style is to be innovative and unique....If you cannot afford our prices and don’t need our kind of products, go somewhere else."
“If you need anything formed, you can find it here,” he says. “China doesn’t know how to do it, neither does Japan. We have a different mentality. Toyota taught the world how to make things in big numbers. We are not that. We are SMEs (small and medium enterprises). We are artists—we’re innovative and unique.”
When asked what the most important feature of a machine is today, he said "Flexibility. Nobody talks about productivity anymore, it is expected, like electricity. What is needed is easiness, intelligent machines that need operators, not engineers. The brain has to be in the machine, not in the person operating it."
There evidently are not enough technicians and engineers being trained anymore, so that the machines have to essentially operate themselves. Galdabini complained that too many people are studying finance and marketing when the world needs more engineers.
Meanwhile, the halls are decked with giant machines that suck sheetmetal in one end and spit Tom Dixon chairs out the other. There are laser cutters slicing steel like butter, making complex little butterflies to give away to the visitors. One machine I saw stamped out complex architectural copper fittings that currently take experienced trades days to form and rivet together.
The machines do the simple tasks that once provided good jobs for the working class, and complex and difficult jobs that required master craftspeople. Essentially the machines are getting so good that we are just not needed anymore.