Just How Digital Are We? The Potential and Limits of a Sector in Search of its Future

Are companies operating in the motion and fluid power transmission sector well aware of the opportunity digitalization presents, both in terms of product design and production process? Which are the hottest trends in the digital transformation? Research conducted by the Politecnico di Milano, headed up by professor Giambattista Gruosso, looked into these questions, and plenty more besides, in some detail. Let’s take a look at the key indicators coming out.

by Fabrizio Dalle Nogare

The hotly anticipated annual report from professor Giambattista Gruosso (together with his working team) of the DEIB, department of electronics, IT and bio-engineering at the Politecnico di Milano is becoming a real tradition. A highly respected check up, that not only considers the quantitative make up of the different sectors, but also, through specially conceived questioning, accurately reports awareness levels and steps taken by companies in their pathway toward digitalization, both for products and processes. This year, the team headed up by professor Gruosso focused on the motion and fluid power transmission sector. Carried out in collaboration with FEDERTEC, the newly created association which represents this very sector.

What goals did you set yourselves in setting up the study? And what, in brief, are the most important emerging trends from analysis of the data collected?
We looked to underline not only what the two sectors have in common but also their strengths. We began, as usual, from balance of trade analysis to put the numbers together and then examined the size of companies.
Some very interesting points came up. The mechanical motion transmission sector appears to be the most representative of what we can call the typical Italian manufacturing set up, while the fluid power sector is much more varied and includes some multinational companies. Overall, I would consider the latter as an engaging sector due to its wider spread of characteristics of ambition and stimulus. The new association has a solid challenge ahead: representing the entire sector. If you consider that there are three sub sectors within the group – mechanical transmission, hydraulics and pneumatics – they are all different from each other and inevitably have differing prospects and growth rates.
Speaking of growth numbers, we have ascertained that the sector is experiencing expansion, at least in terms of revenues that have certainly pushed on over recent years.

A sector in clear growth. How crucial is innovation in this scenario?
Closely scrutinizing the replies to the survey, we saw there is a general tendency to implement new technology in the product design phase, albeit with processes differing depending on product typology. These are often decisions taken in the R&S department looking toward future perspectives rather than current situations dictated by client requests.
As a rule, we can state that companies are interested in digital opportunity in terms of organizing their production processes.

In presenting the study, the sector was described as being “aware of its limits and potential”. Why did you coin this particular phrase?
There is clear awareness of the strong points. The use of motion transmission components is well rooted within the Italian industrial fabric and are a real key step in the value chain.
At the same time, the companies interviewed were also aware of having limits: the market is a mature one and new markets and opportunities need to be sought out. Without these, companies who do a great deal of work exporting cannot hope to stay competitive.
While finding new markets is never easy, there are opportunities here to be exploited. Consider, for example, evolution in the agricultural sector and the automatization that now exists in fruit picking. There are plenty of doors being opened, as long as companies – and this is a key result of our research – are effectively managing the re-skilling, up-skilling and training of their staff so that everyone in the company is ready for the new productive scenario on the doorstep. If the way of thinking within a company doesn’t change, it becomes very difficult to successfully approach new markets.

Other than agriculture, which markets are appealing to companies in the motion and fluid power transmission sector?
The energy sector is undoubtedly one. Then, especially for pneumatics, life science evolution, a field full of potential with great gains to be made. The question is always about entering the supply chain, as a supplier, with engaging products. In the healthcare sector again, further potential exists in robotics for orthopedic treatment, which requires highly specialized motion and fluid power transmission components, although this remains a niche sector for the time being.

The birth of FEDERTEC underlines the evolution of sectorial representation. How do you see the new set up? And what do you think its aims should be?
I believe associations are gaining in importance because companies need critical mass above all else in today’s market. The creation of FEDERTEC, even in the hetero-genus world that this sector certainly is, is undoubtedly a positive note.
The real question at stake is not so much representing companies whose set up may be very different, but rather the need for the association to have a clear goal and focus. This leads to shared operational management.
I can give you an example: associations, with the help of associates, are naturally the perfect place for the spreading of best practices which can generate growth across the whole sector. It has already been the case that sharing winning solutions can spark innovation in many sectors.

As has been the case in other years, study data measures company awareness levels in terms of digital transition. In this field, what results were seen?
Results are inevitably linked to media attention on certain topics. On the other hand, companies are working hard on training their employees in the right way.
In general, as awareness of technology grows, companies ask themselves how such tools can be used. Results here show companies can struggle to clearly identify the potential benefits of digitalization but even information on the issue is not always picked up in the right way.
Additive manufacturing, sensorization, electrification and IIoT are the most widely perceived areas of potential for companies in the survey. Do you believe these are indeed the most relevant aspects in terms of component characteristics across the sector or are these simply the easiest to concretely implement?
Here, there is a “I’ve heard it said” situation at play and it is true that this can influence responses. But it is also relevant to consider that who manufactures, for example, mechanical parts will inevitably look into specific fields, like additive manufacturing or component traceability, more than software.
Sensors or IoT are concepts that anyone operating in pneumatics and hydraulics will have noticed have been specifically on the agenda for a great deal of time now.