Relying on the past to jump into the future

Twenty years are not a short period of time, especially when talking about a company: this important milestone was reached by A.Matic, founded in 2001. A.Matic offers solutions by designing and manufacturing special assembly machines and systems for various sectors, ranging from automotive to cosmetics. Its founder and current director, Luca Colombo, told us about the company’s history, how it evolved and what the forecasts are for the future.

“I n 1985,” Luca Colombo explained, “I started working for a metal manufacturing company specialising in metal products for the furniture industry. I was in charge of the assembly aspect, which was quite articulate and complex”. Luca Colombo remained there until 2000, when, given the important experience acquired in the sector, he decided to create a business of his own, to be able to explore areas other than the specific domain of the company he was working for. A. Matic was therefore founded in 2001, in Lecco: “We started with a couple of collaborators, with the prospect of growing over time, and today, after twenty years of history, we have 25 employees. Of these, half are in the design department: we create internally the mechanical design, the electrical and software development, the management of the assembly control process, basically everything that goes into the engineering of the machine. We only outsource what needs to be built, that is, frames, machine plans and all the components which make up the assembly units, using a network of trusted suppliers”. The desire to explore different operational areas immediately became a reality at A.Matic, which has grown with a transversal imprint on the market, without a reference sector in which to look for customers. “In our charter,” Luca Colombo explained, “it is stated that we make special applications for assembly, which means that they are neither standardised nor listed in a catalogue”. A.Matic’s operating method, therefore, is always to tackle the specific application for the customers, solving their problems or wishes and creating a truly tailor-made solution.“Over the years,” Colombo stated, “we have acquired a competence in assembly which we can define as ‘generalist’: there are operations which are carried out more or less in the same way, whether we are assembling a make-up box, a hinge for an oven or gaskets for pneumatic valves. Thanks to its first-hand knowledge of different markets, A.Matic is able to transfer different experiences to sectors which are very different from each other”. This combination has allowed the company to have a large project archive: in 20 years, hundreds of machines have been created, all of which have a part in common, because over the years internal application standards have been developed, for example handlers created independently of what they need to pick up. “There are customers who have many years of experience with assembly plants,” Luca Colombo says, “and in that case we adopt solutions suggested by the customer, or we propose our own and match them. Other times we get customers who, after a history that saw them with a more commercial imprint, have recently ‘industrialised’ “Over the years,” Colombo stated, “we have acquired a competence in assembly which we can define as ‘generalist’: there are operations which are carried out more or less in the same way, whether we are assembling a make-up box, a hinge for an oven or gaskets for pneumatic valves. Thanks to its first-hand knowledge of different markets, A.Matic is able to transfer various experiences to sectors which are very different from each other”. This combination has allowed the company to have a large project archive: in 20 years, hundreds of machines have been created, all of which have a part in common, because over the years internal application standards have been developed, for example handlers created independently of what they need to pick up. “There are customers who have many years of experience with assembly plants,” Luca Colombo added, “and in that case we adopt solutions suggested by the customer, or we propose our own and match them. On other occasions we come across customers who, after a history in which they were had a more commercial imprint, have recently become ‘industrialised’, so they rely on us for solutions with easily manageable machines”.

Assembly line for O-ring seal and inspection.
Assembly line for O-ring seal and inspection.

Part of Italian excellence

Each project and each machine, therefore, is a story in itself, with an ever-changing development, even though it has elements in common. Each one of them has something exciting about it, because it allows A.Matic to deal with different contents each time, and therefore to face challenges continuously. A satisfaction which has its peak when the machine is delivered to the customer, and finally seen in operation. The passion and care that A.Matic designers and operators put into their work has led to something very important for a company: a very high level of customer loyalty. “It is a source of pride for me to be able to say,” Colombo stated, “that we have had customers who have been working with us since the very beginning and have been ordering machines from us for twenty years. Every customer is part of the company’s assets, it would be a shame to lose them; it is therefore important to learn how to manage the relationship, always aiming at customer satisfaction: we must first of all make sure that they spend their money well and obtain a return thanks to our machines”. It is certainly a privilege to see customers’ companies grow and evolve, but also to be able to be part, albeit indirectly, of the creation of one of the Italian excellences, Ferrari: for a long time, A.Matic has been a supplier of a company which manufactures turbochargers found in the engines of petrol and diesel cars, including those produced by the Italian Prancing Horse company. We have created an assembly line, which we have called Final Assembling,” Luca Colombo explained, “for turbochargers fitted on Ferrari V8 series engines. It is perhaps one of the most interesting applications we have developed, both in terms of complexity and ultimate satisfaction”. The turbocharger is made up of mechanically machined components, manufactured by smelting or casting steel or special alloys with high-precision machine tools, which must then be assembled with great care. There are controls on the line which allow complete traceability of the components, which perform functional checks on the product before it is considered deliverable to the customer. All these data are stored in a database and a file is created for every single turbocharger produced, which is singularised and has a specific serial number to which the history of all the assembly and test phases is linked. The assembled turbocharger is then sent to Ferrari, where it is fitted onto their cars. “For us,” Colombo stated, “knowing that Ferrari cars have some of A.Matic’s expertise is a source of pride”.

Thinking about tomorrow’s state of the art

In twenty years, A.Matic has not only seen the growth of its client companies, but has also experienced first-hand how the market has been revolutionised by changing demands. “ Nowadays, the machine verticalized on a specific product, which was the norm twenty years ago, practically no longer exists,” Luca Colombo explained. “Since our establishment, we have been supplying companies producing cosmetic containers, and our customers asked for highly productive machines focused on one article; these had a life of about 2-3 years, then the product changed and consequently a machine change was necessary. From 2008-2009, on the other hand, the need arose to put new articles on the market even more often than before; but continuous development of the machines was not possible, especially from an investment standpoint. We then started to develop plants designed for product families, with reconfigurable parameters”. From that moment on, flexible machines began to be discussed, that is, machines which could be converted and reset, but always for the same product range. Their complexity has increased, and consequently so has their cost, but the maximum lifetime of the machine has tripled. The changes of the past two decades, however, did not stop here: since 2015, the demand was not only for high flexibility and the ability to be retrofitted, but to be created already with all the integrated equipment to manufacture different products, the ability to self-adjust and self-configure according to the assembly to be carried out. This requires more automation and strong software development. “As regards mechanical design,” Colombo explained, “we had to develop solutions which could adapt to several variants, but where the same station could use common actions and quick setups. Besides, if the need is to make a fast and almost flawless production changeover, a very thorough control of the functions is required, and therefore a major development of the software and the man-machine interface”. In recent times, the trend is increasingly towards systems with the ability to adapt in a very short time, simply by scanning a barcode, to produce different products in small batches. “In one month,” Luca Colombo stated, “a company has to produce, for example, one million pieces, but maybe there are 100 variants to be made in the same week and many of them in the same day; this means frequent retooling and during the design phase we have to foresee this and make it smooth and simple. As I said before, the good thing about our job is that we never get bored: for us it’s always something new to tackle; we have to be open in this sense, always paying attention to what the market is offering and trying to imagine a product containing all the state of the art, not just that of today but that of tomorrow too”.

Automatic handle assembly plant.
Automatic handle assembly plant.

Ideas and projects for the future

By seeing what today’s demands are, therefore, A.Matic is trying to understand what future developments and demands will be. “In my opinion,” Colombo stated, “the trend will be to have plants which combine reduced energy consumption with high production capacity. There is a discussion about energy control involving more economical solutions from the electrical, hydraulic and compressed air consumption standpoints; therefore, more precise control than what is currently in place is required: previously, it was quite typical to carry out an ‘excess’ operation without defining it precisely, whereas today the trend is to ensure that energy consumption is adequate for the application”.
A.Matic has already been actively involved in this change for 2-3 years, since a large part of the energy is consumed in the assembly process. It is no coincidence that many companies are equipping themselves with energy and environmental certificates, precisely because of this new sensitivity which is developing within companies. “I foresee,” Luca Colombo stated, “that there will be more and more highly flexible machines, capable of being self-controlling on the process and of informing in the event of problems, therefore equipped with predictive diagnostics allowing to intervene when needed and not when it is too late, together with ease of use, simplified interface and flexible production data. According to the principles of Industry 4.0, machines must be able to talk to us humans”. Machines receive and provide information about the products they are assembling, they supply performance values and those related to production, therefore efficiency, quality produced, unforeseen situations and how to solve them; things which will be compatible with the right use of energy. “This,” Colombo explained, “does not mean that industry should not use energy or less energy than necessary, of course, but it should do so in moderation”. Another aspect in which A.Matic is investing for its future is the concept of predictive and preventive maintenance, through the introduction of services which help clients to avoid unnecessary downtime; but it is also an opportunity to maintain a strong contact with them: those who provide this service are also those who know how the machine was born, have designed it and seen it “grow”. “Years ago,” Luca Colombo explained, “ once the machines had been delivered to the customer, they would be out of sight and the customer would take care of all maintenance operations. Since the machines have entered the 4.0 perspective, we at A.Matic can have, if authorised, access to the interfaces and we can see what is happening, and if necessary propose maintenance and service plans. This is very welcome, since in the manufacturing field knowledge is struggling to follow the turbulent trend of continuous improvement and development of the technological content of machines”.
Indeed, the current Italian job market does not offer enough technicians to cover the needs of companies; this is also due to the lack of training and knowledge that students in Italy have, through no fault of their own, as to what skills are required and what the real outlets for their fields of study are. “Mechatronics means everything and it means nothing: for many, the term is still associated with the workshop, a dirty place where you do repetitive work. This has led over the years to an impoverishment of the supply of technically trained personnel,” Colombo stated. A.Matic lives this reality on a daily basis, as it often hosts trainees from high schools and universities: these young people are ‘built’ within the company, so that they can stay, but when they arrive they are lost. A big problem,” Luca Colombo said, “is the backwardness of the educational programmes offered to these young people: in technical institutes, specifically, the courses are based on machines dating back about 40 years, but the technological world has been overturned many times over during this time span. All this has created a gap between young people and the labour market: what they have studied does not match what a company needs. But many of them, when faced with reality, flourish: we have had young people who within 3-4 months realise that they like the job, that they want to learn more and therefore they remain with us”. One of A.Matic’s added values is the loyalty of its staff, not just its customers, which has enabled the company to expand over the last twenty years. “We have worked,” Colombo concluded, “with the aim of always having a little more work than we could handle, and then growing gradually as needed. This implies having capable personnel, trained and built within the company: it is the basis on which our ability to produce machines and our corporate culture rest. Skills are born in the company, based on the people who work here. Human capital is always fundamental.”.