This sponsored story was produced in association with the Italian Trade Agency, not by MIT Technology Review editorial staff.
What’s Italy’s biggest export right now? If you answered food, fashion, wine, or sports cars, you’ve guessed wrong.
There’s no question that Italy remains famous for its great cuisine, world-class wines, and incomparable automobiles. But the country’s strongest export industry today is high technology. In fact, about 60 percent of Italy’s exports are in machinery, technology, and related industries, according to the Italian Trade Agency (ITA).
While Italy’s leaders appreciate their country’s rich history, they believe its future depends on technology, automation, and manufacturing.
“The past is gorgeous. The past is incredible. The past is fantastic,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said at the ITA’s recent i3 Forum in Chicago. “We love our past. But we also love our tomorrow.”
The event—whose three “i’s” stand for “impact,” “innovate,” and “integrate”—brought together American and Italian entrepreneurs and government leaders for an intensive day of networking, presentations by two groups of Italian innovators, and two panel discussions: one on manufacturing and social innovation, the other on robotics and additive manufacturing.
Attendees also toured Chicago’s Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII), a new research facility that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called “the epicenter for the United States in the digital advanced manufacturing area.”
Renzi, who received a standing ovation when he entered the conference hall, said that Europeans in general tend to be somewhat fearful about the future. “A lot of the time, we consider the future a great threat, not a great opportunity,” he said.
But Renzi—who is, at 41, Italy’s youngest prime minister in more than 150 years—takes a more optimistic view. “From Fiat Chrysler down to the last little company, I consider the only solution today to be innovation,” he told the audience, adding later: “I consider it a priority for us to invest in the future with more determination,” drawing on the “strong presence of entrepreneurs, our researchers, our professors, and our people who believe it is possible to build a different idea of the future.”
Italy’s relationship with the United States is a leading indicator of that future, several speakers noted. “If you look at figures of the Italian trade with the United States, we see constant growth,” said Armando Varricchio, the recently installed Italian ambassador to the United States.
“The United States is a very, very important partner for us,” agreed Ivan Scalfarotto, undersecretary of state at Italy’s Ministry of Economic Development. In the past year, trade between the two countries grew by more than 18 percent, he said: “The total amount of the exchange between the two countries went well above 50 billion euros.”
Interviewed during the event, a former ITA president predicted that the relationship would continue to grow. “Looking ahead, I see a very strong expansion of partnerships with the United States,” he said. “Many joint ventures are already attracting investors.”
Perhaps nowhere is the current U.S.–Italian relationship stronger than in Chicago. “Today, the city of Chicago and Italy have $2.1 billion worth of trade,” Emanuel said.
Marc Allen, president of Boeing International, noted that Boeing moved its corporate headquarters from Seattle to Chicago in 2001. “We found here a very welcoming, diverse, skilled workforce, and Chicago’s been a great home,” Allen said. “I’m really delighted to see the integration between the city of Chicago and the leadership of Italy, because these are two great places that are working together in pretty intentional ways.”
In addition, Boeing itself has partnered with Italian companies for nearly 70 years—and expects to keep doing so. “We have a global production system,” Allen noted. “Despite the fact that we do final assembly of our airplanes, for example, in either Puget Sound in Washington State, or Charleston in South Carolina, the planes themselves are truly manufactured through our constantly moving, 24/7 global production systems, which include our partners, many of whom are in Italy. Continuing to build out those partnerships, continuing to make them more effective, is really where we see a great deal of necessary innovation.”
Among the areas where Italy sees the most promise are robotics and automation. “This is a fantastic industry,” with more than 400 companies employing 32,000 people in Italy, Scalfarotto said. Those companies generate more than 6 billion euros, with two-thirds of that amount exported abroad—much of it to the United States.
One panel discussion offered a multi-faceted look into that industry. Moderated by Kathleen D. Kennedy, president of the MIT Enterprise Forum, the panel featured an academic, a journalist, and two industry representatives—an entrepreneur and an executive from a global enterprise. Their message: robotics and automation are already transforming the manufacturing world.
“Acceptance of robots has reached a critical point in North America,” said Sarah Webster, then-editor in chief of Manufacturing Engineering magazine, published by SME, a professional association for manufacturing engineers. “We’ve had several consecutive years of record robotic sales in the United States.” She predicted that sales will continue to grow as prices decline, programming becomes easier, and demand increases. “Even the smaller shops now are having so much trouble finding workers that they need robots,” Webster said. In fact, she added: “They can’t build them fast enough.”
Panelists wanted to put to rest the myth that robots will steal human jobs. Webster cited an SME survey that asked participants whether they viewed robotics as a job creator or a job killer. “Ninety percent of our audience said it was a job creator,” she said. “That’s because these people work in manufacturing, and they see what’s happening. A robot may technically displace someone who’s doing the same job, but ultimately, that worker is needed somewhere else.”
Arturo Baroncelli, business development manager for Comau, the Italian robotics and automation company, agreed. “There is no connection between the increase of robotics and the decrease of employment,” he said. Instead, robots can be used for jobs that are too dangerous or difficult for humans to do. “Even Mike Tyson in his prime wasn’t able to manipulate 200 kilograms [about 440 pounds] 24 hours a day,” Baroncelli said. “No person in the world is able to move 200 pieces per minute, or to handle red-hot pieces.”
Combining robotic and human efforts offers new ways to address long-standing problems, said David Corsini, founder of Telerobot Labs, an Italian company that designs and builds automation systems for production processes. “There are operations that humans alone can’t perform and operations that a machine alone cannot perform,” Corsini explained. “The integration of human capability with the capability of robots is the solution.”
Panelists acknowledged that the cooperative model is in its infancy. “At this moment, the robots are still small. The payload is low. But the trend is there,” Baroncelli said. “I see more flexible systems using cooperative robots and humans together, each one bringing to the party what it does best.”
When Kennedy asked panelists to predict what they might be discussing in five years, Giorgio Metta summed it up in five words: “a robot in every home.” Metta, a professor at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genova added: “I think that’s a huge market, in numbers at least.” He acknowledged that, so far, research has focused largely on industrial uses for robots, but he said the technology offers promise for personal applications as well.
The panel’s forward-looking approach dovetailed nicely with Renzi’s earlier call to look forward rather than back. “It’s not enough to say that the future is better than the past,” he told the crowd. “The future is wonderful. This is a message for the American people. This must be the message also for the Italian people.”
For more about the event, visit the i3 Forum website.