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Industry 4.0: good but only for the big ones

The UCIMU surveys indicate the aging of the industrial machinery fleet, a sign that Industry 4.0 investments do not yet affect small companies

Industry 4.0 in Italy? It has brought positive results but to large companies, while in general the machine tools and production systems installed in Italy in engineering companies have a higher average age than in the past. To affirm it, with the data for the pre-pandemic 2019 in hand, are not the critics of innovation but a reliable source: UCIMU, the association of Italian manufacturers of machine tools, robots and automation.

increase in the average age of the installed park rose to 14 years and 5 months, equal to 1 year and 9 months more than the previous survey of 2011.

And almost half (48%) of the machines are over the age of 20. But there is a double-speed dynamic. If on the one hand about half of the active production machines are objectively old, on the other the technological level of the Italian machine park has definitely grown thanks to the investments in Industry 4.0 logic made recently. A sign that – explains Barbara Colombo, president of UCIMU – there is a clear”tendency towiden the gap between companies that invest and grow in competitiveness and companies that remain firm”.

According to the surveys that UCIMU has made on its sample (2, 000 companies with more than 20 employees, 15% of the universe of companies in the sector at the end of 2019) the machine tools installed are growing by 21.6% compared to 2011.

An increase due to the fact that the factories in the sector have returned to invest in new machines without discontinuing the old systems. The increase therefore hides only a partial replacement of already installed production systems.

One of the consequences of this dynamic is that the average age of machinery rises and in 2019 it reached, according to UCIMU, the highest age ever recorded since 1975. A phenomenon mainly due to the fact that many companies have not made investments in innovation despite the 4.0 incentives, limiting themselves if anything to retrofittinginterventions. In general, then, many companies keep in operation, for marginal and non-strategic processes, outdated but still sufficient machinery.

Investments change

Of course we see a change in the purchasing dynamics of machine tools and production systems. You spend less on traditional products and more on innovative ones. It is no coincidence that in the metalworking world it is traditional machines that are older, while those that operate with unconventional technologies (laser, plasma, waterjet, additive manufacturing, robots) are obviously “younger”. However, they still account for only 27% of factory systems. The robotic component stands out positively: robots with an age not exceeding 5 years represent about 30% of the total present in the factories. Among the positive signs launched by UCIMU there is the increase in the incidence of numerical control machines on the total installed fleet: 54% of the technologies present in the factories (and it is a value probably underestimated) compared to 32% in 2014.

For truly 4.0 systems (with digital interconnection of control and management systems), however, the percentage drops to 5.6%, however, twice as much as in 2011.

The underlying problem in the failure to replace machinery is the investment capacity of companies and their propensity for digital innovation. Which are mainly related to the size of the company. Today – or rather, at the end of 2019 – large companies (over 200 employees) have more than a quarter of the total fleet installed and are the realities that invest the most in new production systems. There is also a growing rift between companies with less than a hundred employees and larger ones.

The former have less and less machinery (today 60% of the installed fleet, in 2014 67%), the latter more and more. And they perform better than those of a smaller size.

To improve the scenario of Italian production plants, the path to follow is the one that has already been traced. Industry 4.0 policies have brought positive effects but not yet sufficient. To extend them, according to UCIMU, it is necessary to bring beyond 2022 measures such as the tax credit for purchases in new machines. This should “intercept” even smaller companies, which have difficulty in putting in place new investments. Investment concessions must then be accompanied by tax credits for training, because technologies are not enough: it is also necessary to know how to use them well.

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