Wiesbaden, Germany--"Because we're Italian, people believe that we're all pizza makers," laughs Dr. Lucia Lunghini of Italy's National Institute for Foreign Trade. "But we're here to change that image and show the world that the subcontractor industry in Italy is actually quite technologically sophisticated."
Nearly 150 Italian subcontractors turned out at a recent trade fair here to tout their expertise in manufacturing metal, plastic, and rubber components to German OEMs.
Franco Masiero, president of the 10-year-old Italian company MITO, was anxious to show off some of the valves, connectors, and other high-quality parts he is already selling to German makers of robotics and food-processing equipment. "See these high-tolerance parts? They're almost impossible to make. But we are able to fabricate them with zero defects," he brags.
Italy's long history of producing quality goods is one reason that literally hundreds of small subcontractors like MITO (the average number of employees is less than 30) have been able to attract foreign customers. Germany is Italy's largest export market, followed by France and Great Britain.
But it is the Italian subcontractor industry's growing use of factory automation, CAD software, the Internet, and other design tools that truly empowers these tiny firms, many of which are still family-run, to be competitive in a global market. It's the ultimate story of David vs. Goliath.
Gustavo Biagi, for example, joined Zocca, a maker of gears and other metal components, after working as a general manager at a much bigger firm. "When I started here, the company was 20 years behind the times. I knew perfectly well that we would not survive unless we brought in new technology," he says.
Today, says Biagi, Zocca resembles any other high-tech metalworking facility. Machining operations are highly automated, and engineers use 3D CAD and regularly exchange electronic files with customers over the Internet.
Biagi is particularly proud of the fact that Zocca recently won a major contract to produce a speed-reducing gear for the motorcycle maker Dukati, triumphing over several much larger competitors. Moreover, it is the first time a particular engine type featuring Zocca's speed reducer placed first in a European and world championship.
Armed with the latest technology, Italian subcontractors seem to be positioned to deliver the ultimate one-two punch: The smallness of these firms gives them a kind of agility to respond more quickly than the competition to a changing marketplace.
"Other companies take one or two weeks to respond to a customer request that we can fulfill in a single day, plus we have a good relationship between price and quality," says Andres Kiss of Carrara, a manufacturer of gaskets and seals. "We're very competitive now--even with some American companies."