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U.S.-Italy Collaboration Helping to Advance Manufacturing Innovation

The Italian Trade Agency’s Innovation Days events further strengthen U.S.-Italy advanced manufacturing ties by inspiring partnerships among academic and industry innovators.

Q4 2018
Innovation Days Detroit
Innovation Days Detroit
Editor's Note: This article was commissioned by the Italian Trade Agency (ITA), which approved and paid for this posting. The ITA’s innovation conferences seek to promote the opportunities offered for new U.S.-Italy advanced manufacturing partnerships.

During the week of June 25th, U.S. and Italian leaders from the corporate, higher education, association, and governmental fields gathered in Detroit, Michigan, and Rockford, Illinois, to discuss key trends and challenges in advanced manufacturing and to explore new collaborations between the countries.

The 2018 Innovation Days events — which were picked up by 229 news outlets reaching more than 85 million potential readers — attracted a vibrant mix of experts who dissected advanced manufacturing trends in both the U.S. and Italian markets and explored potential paths to partnerships. The thought leadership conference featured speakers, panel discussions, site visits, and one-on-one meetings. The Italian Trade Agency, host of the event, has helped stage previous events in Washington, D.C., and Milan, Italy, surrounding the topic of U.S.-Italian partnerships in advanced manufacturing.

Technology Trends Highlighted
The Innovation Days events covered a wide variety of technology trends in manufacturing. Paolo Rocco, chair of the Automation and Control Engineering Program of the Polytechnic University of Milan, says the conference helped highlight the rich possibilities for U.S. and Italian partners to team up. “The Innovation Days have clearly demonstrated that both Italy and the U.S. are growing fast in manufacturing and that there is a wide potential of cooperation between the two countries,” Rocco notes. “The means to actuate such cooperation span from commercial agreements to common research projects between universities and research centers.”

Steven Shade, managing director of the Institute for Competitive Manufacturing at Purdue University, says Innovation Days sparked the type of conversations that can lead to long-term collaborations. “It puts like-minded individuals interested in manufacturing in one place at the same time, focusing on a variety of topics that are all closely related,” says Shade. “At the end of the day, even if decisions aren’t always made, I think they’re highly influenced by personal interactions made at the event. Conferences like this do an important job of raising awareness and starting engagement between people who would like to work together. I found there to be a very high level of energy among the discussions.”

The Innovation Days have clearly demonstrated that both Italy and the U.S. are growing fast in manufacturing and that there is a wide potential of cooperation between the two countries. Paolo Rocco, chair, Automation and Control Engineering Program of the Polytechnic University of Milan Rosanna Fornasiero attended Innovation Days representing the Italian Technology Cluster’s Intelligent Factories initiative, which was created by the Italian Ministry of Research to support research and innovation for approximately 300 companies in the manufacturing sector. “The event gave us the chance to meet other companies, to explain the activities that we’re doing and to build on the activities that we’re already doing,” Fornasiero says. “We’re already in the USA. We had the [opportunity] to meet many companies.”

Fornasiero also says she encountered American companies with a diversity of interests in the Italian market. “It was interesting to get to know some American companies that already had links with Italian companies and some that were looking for new relationships,” she explains.

Site Visits Showcase Advanced Manufacturing Strengths
Martin Kinsella, director of business development for Comau, an Italian-based company that specializes in industrial automatics and robotics, also attended the conference. Comau’s U.S. headquarters is located in Southfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Kinsella says the presentations and topics complemented each other in compelling ways, and the event offered an occasion to show visitors some of the strengths of advanced manufacturing in southeast Michigan.

“Comau had the opportunity to host a brief visit by a number of the attendees, which was very well attended and also very positively received,” Kinsella says. “We appreciated the chance to do that.”

Rocco notes the particular value of site visits that were a part of the Innovation Days events, including not just Comau but trips to LIFT, a Detroit-based public-private partnership to develop and deploy advanced lightweight materials manufacturing technologies, and the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, a 100,000-square-foot innovation center in Chicago.

Public-Private Partnerships Help Foster Economic Growth
Rocco says LIFT and the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute are “bright examples” of public-private partnerships and notes that Italy is establishing similar centers, which are called the Competence Centers on Industry 4.0. Edoardo Sabbioni, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Milan, says the centers offered a clear opportunity.

“The possible cooperation among institutions involved in manufacturing in U.S. and Italian competence centers may represent a bridge to increase relationships between U.S. and Italian companies and universities,” Sabbioni says.

It puts like-minded individuals interested in manufacturing in one place at the same time, focusing on a variety of topics that are all closely related. Steven Shade, managing director, Institute for Competitive Manufacturing at Purdue University Rocco agrees that Innovation Days helped to highlight “the importance of public-private partnerships in fostering economic growth by promoting awareness of the new technologies and sharing of infrastructures and skilled people.”

In a presentation he gave at the event, Shade highlighted the collaborations that Purdue has with Italian partners. Rocco notes that “from the academic perspective, the scientific communities in the field of advanced manufacturing in Italy and the U.S. are very well-connected already. In terms of exchange of students and of common degrees between the universities, there is something in place. However, more can be done in this respect.”

Ron Weavil is North American territory manager for Roboze, an Italian company founded in 2013 to provide 3D printers to industrial clients, particularly in the oil and gas and aerospace fields. He attended part of Innovation Days. He says Roboze already collaborates with Italian university partners and now is exploring collaborating with U.S. academic institutions, such as Northern Illinois University. “We’re looking into partnerships that can be a good fit,” Weavil says.

Erasing Misconceptions
In addition to the academic partnerships, conversations between potential university and industrial partners are critical because they help erase misconceptions that can exist between the fields. “There’s a need and a desire for us to build strong collaborations,” Shade says. “It’s how new ideas come together because of the different perspectives you bring to a relationship. So it's a necessary ingredient for how we do our work.”

One of the key takeaways that Rocco hopes Innovation Days attendees received was “that Italy is a reliable partner in advanced manufacturing, both in terms of industrial and research partnerships and that excellent business opportunities are available in these interactions.” As an example, Rocco points to his field of robotics, saying “there is ample potential for collaboration between the two countries.”

Rocco was among the presenters on robotics — a list that also included the Association for Advancing Automation in Michigan and Comau. Presenters demonstrated that the various partners occupied common ground and shared “the same needs, challenges, and opportunities for robotics in the manufacturing industry,” Rocco says.

Kinsella appreciates the mixture of Italian and U.S. representatives from both academia and industry at the events. “There was great engagement from all of the attendees,” Kinsella says. “You really got a lot of great perspectives from all of the different sides.”

What’s Next With Innovation Days?
Upcoming Innovation Days will focus on startups (October 2018 in San Francisco), aerospace (November 2018 in Houston), renewable energy (December 2018 in Orlando), biotech/life sciences (January 2019 in San Francisco), and another event to be scheduled in 2019 in Washington, D.C.

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