Factory of the future
2013-09-24 | Text: Andrea Ceracchi, owner and director of CECOM, member of the «Fabbrica del futuro» | Photo ©: | 4475

 

In the present economic situation, businesses have to act in hard competitive conditions. And even an appearance of any innovation in the market is no guarantee of survival. Today organizational decisions, which allow setting innovations in motion, are becoming necessary. Italian Fabbrica del Futuro can serve as an example of such decisions. One of the initiators of the project, engineer and businessman Andrea Cerracchi, told us about it.

 

I have been involved in the business connected with innovative manufacturing for a long time. But many issues became evident for me only a few years ago, in 2008. That moment marked a significant increase in turbulence. Having high demand in high-tech goods, it became possible to beat competitors only when you combine several advanced technologies in one product.

We are using different ways to obtain the technologies we need. The simplest way is just to buy them or take them “on loan”. But we also do some elaborations by ourselves. Sometimes things “outshoot”. But often these methods are not successful with regard to market demand.

After all, an understanding of reasonableness using a different, non-traditional approach to solving the problem became clear – the union of a number innovative enterprises in to a single partnership network – Fabbrica del Futuro («Factory of the future»).

All these enterprises have their own unique set of advanced technologies, but the creation of a network allows us to be more flexible and to work in wider directions. The flexibility is conditioned due to the fact that when developing a fundamentally new product there is no such necessity for extending the company, i.e. extending the core which will be engaged in new technologies. As for the business diversification, the network provides a variety of products, processes and application spheres here. For example if you combine a technology which is used today only in medicine with a range of other technologies, it can find its application, for example, in the energy sphere.

At the moment about ten enterprises are involved in Fabbrica del Futuro project, and the net itself is still in the formation stage. Besides, each enterprise remains legally independent, self-engaged in ongoing work and searches for customers itself.

For instance – in the Gelco Company, which is owned and led by Gaia Mancini, nowadays there are about 50 members and 5 of them are doing research and development. But thus the company operates in the fields of defense, medical equipment, space and electronics. It is focused on building prototypes, bringing goods to production, related technical services (vibration, temperature tests), manufacturing of circuit boards, cables, etc. Today Gaia Mancini company takes part in space projects of the “Vega“ series, and in collaboration with the Italian Institute La Sapienza, it started to develop nano-satellites which are intended for investigation of atmospheric pollution levels. These are the projects in which Gelco takes part itself, without involving the network.

This same situation exists with other enterprises. Cecom is specialized in high precision mechanic processing and manufacturing of high-tech parts. In particular, we manufacture spare parts for Boeing airplanes and unique parts for customers located at different points of the globe.

AlfaTau, led by Massimo Ceroni, works in engineering including the design and manufacturing of equipment for alternative energetics.

NRT, owned by Urbano Barbarella, is engaged in radiation and radiation medicine.

Moreover, the Italian National Agency for New Technologies (ENEA) became our partner, its range of activities extends all the way to the development of different lasers, plasma technologies and nuclear fusion.

Generally, we could continue our work in the same stream – everyone doing their own job. But today new technological challenges pursue us. And if we have a goal or an opportunity to develop and propose any new, multi-technology product to the market, then why not use it? But this is precisely the necessity to unite the efforts and experiences of several innovative companies, which are professionals in their own fields. With the objectives of this level, any small or medium-sized company is not able to handle these alone due to limited recourses. But even to big enterprises such projects are too “heavy”. For new technological research, especially if it can be only conditionally attributed to the sphere of activity of the corporation, so it is necessary to form new research teams and build laboratories. And this is too costly both on terms of money and time. But putting together a group of several small specialized companies in the framework of an existing network is a task of on entirely different level.

In this case, an inclusion of an enterprise into a network does not involve signing any documents or changing of any legal status. The uniting factors at this time are regular contact and a common view on the conduction of business – focusing on innovations and the desire to create something really new and interesting. Our philosophy is not in manufacturing large volumes. We are specialized in producing completely new and unique things. From this point of view we do not have any wish to go in mass manufacturing. Our goal is to produce a solution that nobody else can come up with and to ”give” it to the market. And so it is, over and over again.

 

But when a certain order appears, of course it is impossible to evade contractual relationships. Mostly for the projects we create are a legal entity, temporary consortium, and in each particular case the constitution of the companies will be different regarding the technological solution that needs to be elaborated on. It is a voluntary choice of each enterprise whether to participate in the project or not. It is the new legal entity that is in a relationship with the client. As a rule, within the consortium one of the companies becomes the leading one (in fact, it manages the project) – it is the company which made a major contribution to the awarding of the contract, either based on technology or the product development.

Of course, important roles here include such things as professional ethics, trust and responsibility of the network members to each other. Since any offer made for the services of the consortium involves everyone, it doesn’t pay for any one company to overload there costing or else the project becomes economically unviable and the contract will be lost. We understand it all and act in accordance with the agreements concluded in advance. And this is also part of our common business philosophy. Consequently, the distribution of the consortium’s income is in the proportion to the work carried out by each of the companies.

As an example of a project implemented by the network and only because of the network, I will bring in to play the “Ispan” project involved in the sphere of proton therapy technology development. Practically all the enterprises of the network were involved in it – ENEA, Cecom, Gelco, NRT. After the project implementation the network obtained the qualification of the Swedish Research Center. There are only three companies in the world with similar qualifications. Thanks to collaboration with one French company, we recently signed a contract with CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research, the world's largest laboratory for High Energy Physics), now we are working on signing a contract with Fusion for Energy in Barcelona.

I will also focus on two more aspects of our work. On the one hand we must continuously develop our technologies, on the other hand – we must provide ourselves with qualified, capable-for-growth professionals. As a positive example of how we have managed to cover both of these vectors, I will tell about the experience of our collaboration with the Romanian university Tor Vergata.

First of all, it was important to create a platform for communication. And like many other things in this world, here it was all about specific people – teachers and professors... After all, we established good relationships with the university, but though we had immediate and complete understanding with the department of materials, it was much harder with the others – they have absolutely a different mentality.

Those departments we were working with did not ask money at the first point of contact. But they did asking about the possibilities, about the problems that must be solved. These topics can be funded by the European Community, the state. We can unite and work together to get this funding. But other departments and other professors do not apply such an approach. They think that if we are the company, then we have the money. And this is why the first thing they ask about is money. They want big money for students working in our company.

But, first of all, an attraction of students to work in the company is expensive for us. The first investment that we can make is to invest our time in students. Students work on projects for the company and the company invests its time. This is important because students are not sufficiently prepared for the job.

Thus, we are trying to find the departments with which we may work together on joint projects. An example of the densest interaction in the framework of the project is the depositing of copper working in conjunction with materials technology department. In this case, firstly we solve the problem of understanding the processes which takes place during the depositing of copper, and secondly we analyze how the students are ready to work in our company. This is also important in terms of time-to-market. The point is we don’t have any contracts related to this topic. We are working for the future. We know that this technology will be demanded by the market in the future, so we are investing in it today to have a solution ready for the moment when the demand will appear. We thoroughly study the process so it cannot be a black box for us, but completely understandable. We explore the relationship between the electroplating bath and the result by studying the resulting cover, studying hardness, studying energy capacity, by conducting material microanalysis. But since we are not scientists but industrialists, we need somebody who can conduct these analyses in order to build the relationship between the outcome and the galvanization process parameters. This is one of the reasons for establishing collaboration with universities.

Students are studying during the work on the project. Learning by doing is much more efficient than just studying theory. Graduates of Tor Vergata, who came to our company after finishing university and participating in our joint projects during studying, proved themselves from a very positive side. They became excellent engineers. We provided them with a good salary corresponding to their level, and we are very content with them.

An engineer can play different roles while making his career path in our company. First of all, he works as an engineer and does his job. Consequently, they can be a supervisor for young engineers. And the high-level technicians, knowing the potential of the technology inside out, make contact with universities and research centers for technology development and launch new joint projects that could be opened both to students and professors.

In conclusion, I want to summarize what was said. I’m sure that the business model chosen by us, with innovative companies joined into the network and actively collaborating with educational institutions in a joint projects format, represents adequate response to the challenges of a modern market place. This model allows us to be on the cutting edge of technologies and to create unique high-tech goods, and not once, but permanently, even for small companies.

 

Yuri Gromyko 

 

Companies in the Fabbrica del Futuro are exactly from the category of that small, innovative modern Western-style companies of which I spoke earlier. Innovation here is evident not only in the discharged product, but in all aspects of activities, whether it is equipment with hi-tech facilities, organization of manufacturing processes, research in joint projects with educational institutions or training of personnel "through the activities". In addition to this, there is a special mentality of owners and managers of these companies, which is felt immediately when communicating with them.
But of course the phenomenon of networking enterprises deserves special attention itself. And from my point of view, this is also innovation which requires special attention and understanding and replication probably. For example, experience in the factory in process technologization and standardization in 3D and 4D modelling deserves attention. The factory, when it works using net principle, first creates a construction model, which is distributed to all the net and becomes the next subject for general discussion and provision of common solutions. And these models are not only the formal visualization. First of all, these are special programs, where calculations and tests on variables effects are carried out. 
 

 

Luigi Picardi, ENEA senior scientist 

 

When in the process of our work there is a necessity to create a required device (based on identified physical principles, or required for the study of these principles), in general, we understand how it should be set out and how it should work – we understand the physical process itself. But we are not good enough, for example, in such areas as materials or machining. That is why we ask Fabbrica del Futuro to manufacture the device as there are specialists there. We sit down with Andrea and his engineers and tell them what we want. They sketch our "Wishlist", and then, at their premises, they turn it into a 3D model. They pick up the necessary materials, decide which types of metal should be used, what equipment must be worked at. As a result, on the basis of the 3D model, a device prototype is made. 
The prototype is brought to us and we conduct its trial. After finding deviations we organize a new meeting where we discuss existing problems, possible enhancements and what changes must be made. After this, Fabbrica del futuro elaborates the prototype. And so it may happen several times – as long as we do get a fully functional sample. This is normal workflow since we are talking about some new areas which were never entered in to before by anyone. 
 
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