A new course, a rising trend, was palpable at the Simac Tanning Tech fair 2018. Many solutions dedicated to the automation of some production processes: robotic arms and modules integrated into complex production lines. How do some of the most involved companies in this renewal process interpret this outburst?
«We look at the future with the awareness that the footwear production will be increasingly oriented towards automated processes and interconnected machinery – explains Mariano Bonato, president of Main Group Technologies. «We must not only consider the issues of productivity, but also the growing attention that the market pays to topics regarding sustainability and energy saving, for which automation can do a lot». For Irene Bianchi of GUSBI «automation is undoubtedly the future. Almost all companies are interested in the evolutionary process of their factories which, in practice, will mean quality and precision during the key steps of production».
Angelo Taurino from Robot System emphasizes: «Automating shoe factories would also allow us to bring back production, and therefore work, to Italy and Europe. The efforts of Industry 4.0 are not enough, we need to go further and encourage investments in automation in a broader sense. China and the United States are already doing this by creating, for example, specially trained teams to bring automation faster into factories».
It is easy to understand why Asia is going along this road: «The regret is, in fact, that the big changes in favour of automation are happening abroad and not in Italy, where the history of footwear was and still is being written. Right now the Asian countries are those that, more than others, are strongly focusing on automation: China, Vietnam and Indonesia in the first place. Realizing the increase of labour costs, they try to introduce technological innovations. 80% of the lines produced today by Robot System are destined to the Asian market. What remains goes to North America. Very little stays in Europe».
This is confirmed by Klaus Freese of Desma: «Automation is something at which almost everyone is aiming. On the contrary, I would say that there is a return to automation. The big names asking for technology 30 years ago – and which then changed strategy by shifting production to Asia and chasing cheap labour – are now looking back at innovation, because labour costs in China have increased and there are no other countries like China in the world».
But doesn’t automated mean giving up that creativity and the human factor that made Italy great? Absolutely not, in Robot System’s opinion: «On the contrary, it elevates creativity to the next level. Paradoxically, it could be said that creativity is forced to the limits of what a human is able to do manually. To understand this concept, just think of the automotive industry: today even the constructive and design quality of low cost cars is incredibly superior to that of the past, thanks to the entrance of automation in the assembly lines».
What automation systems are we talking about? «If 30 years ago we tried to replace workers with robots – continues Klaus Freese – today we want a cooperation between humans and machines. Robots must free people from the heaviest and most dangerous activities; they are integrated into production, but human beings must remain centre stage. It is an automation that must be able to increase production by 30%, making the final product cost less, as happened in the automotive sector».
For Main Group «it means helping the sector to improve the product quality, optimizing space and efficiency, reducing waste and facilitate operators, taking care of all the details that make the difference in the creation of a shoe. It’s a focused mix of tools, robotics and electronics that aims to improve standards. The automation in which we believe is of substance, pragmatic, and will be applied only if it actually produces benefits».
Irene Bianchi (Gusbi) echoes: «The use of robots capable of handling parts from the line to the injection molding carousel means really looking ahead, even though we would already be able to provide this kind of future. For now we just have to make do: the automated workstations are limited to perform basic but important operations, such as carding».
Angelo Taurino of Robot System is very clear: «The future of automation is all about the intention of having automated manufacturing production lines. Today automation is applied by inserting it into a process that was born to be manual: a compromise. While automation should be the basis of a product design. You will have to design the shoe with the idea of using robots to make it happen. If, since the very beginning, I have in mind a robot, I know its limits and advantages and will adapt the production process accordingly, obtaining more efficiency and precision. A passage that would be feasible already today…
you just have to be patient that the natural evolutionary process is fulfilled and that you pass the current fear, just as it passed 30 years ago when the first tack lasting machines were seen as coming from the unknown world».
And to those who may have doubts that this drive towards automation is just a straw fire, Angelo Taurino always replies: «The upstream robot producers have identified in the footwear sector a fertile ground in which to make investments in the next 10 years, while in the past they treated us as if we were the last ones in the world. They understood that the potential market is enormous, considering the quantity of products that sells the footwear industry compared to the automotive sector, and the many processing steps in which robots can intervene».