The fourth dimension - Simac Tanning Tech 2017

15 March 2017

Industry 4.0 represents a radical shift in the way the leather industry approaches production in terms of funding, location and technology. Andrea Guolo reflects on the main themes that emerged from Simac Tanning Tech, which took place in Milan, 21–23 February.

Simac Tanning Tech in February indicated the road that the leather industry must travel to remain competitive. Technology was the mantra and the feeling was that those who didn’t invest wouldn’t survive. Some money is still being saved by outsourcing work to African facilities but, increasingly, that continent is being seen as a source of resources, rather than just cheap labour.

Investment strategies can be roughly divided into three areas, the first of which may be called ‘easy use’. It is vital that tanning, footwear and leather goods machinery is immediately available and intuitive to use – especially in emerging economies – so that management and technical issues don’t slow production cycles. The idea that European technical staff will intervene in factories located in Asia, Latin America or Africa is no longer sustainable outside of emergencies.

The second mode, already developed and characterised by high manufacturing costs, is ‘Industry Automation 4.0’, which was a theme running through presentations at the Milan fair. It concerns the allocation of funds by some governments (including Italy’s) to help enable what is regarded as the fourth industrial revolution in the leather business. “This is but the start of a new chapter for the sector, on which we shall be working in the near future,” commented Assomac president Gabriella Marchioni Bocca, highlighting the success of this year’s Simac Tanning Tech, which ended with a double-digit percentage increase of visitors after increasing exhibition space by a fifth.

“As demonstrated by the visitors themselves over the three exhibition days, the exhibitors managed to provide concrete technological responses to different production needs,” noted Bocca.

As demonstrated by the visitors themselves over the three exhibition days, the exhibitors managed to provide concrete technological responses to different production needs.

There was a strong sense of a sector in motion in Milan, and this was thanks to every single company that, day after day, conducts research and keeps focusing on clients in order to respond best to their needs, from product technology to process technology.

Go fourth and prosper

Industry 4.0 is also a tool to restore manufacturing to the places where goods are actually being consumed. There is a conviction that this will happen in Europe to reduce the gap between production, which often takes place in Asia and retail. The US may follow suit (if one substitutes Latin America for Asia) in response to changes being made by the current administration.

The third mode is linked to some increasingly central themes governing production: sustainability, traceability and environmental impact.

The application of these issues extends from the mechanical to chemical business, with ‘green’ innovations such as Dermochimica’s Hydroil olive-based tanning, which looks destined for all leather outlets, including automotive.

Lmf Biokimica concentrated on a drum treatment system that can cover defects in the retanning process, which is perfect for ennobling raw hides of any origin, but in particular for lower-quality South American hides. Chimica Italiana presented some interesting ideas that focused on chrome-free tanning and were particularly suitable for lining.  The push to automation and adoption of smart systems galvanised research on drums, where the last great innovation was the transition to polypropylene.

The robots are coming

Pajusco Technologies has devised a system – already used by the Pasubio group – of dyeing with digital systems while connected to a network that handles processing time, water loads and the use of chemical products, and enables remote management of online information and assistance. Hüni made a great impact with its new TT drum, PPH Polypropylene, which is probably the biggest unit of its kind in the world. The Swiss technology group also demonstrated how its Aquamix systems for water mixing and dosing had evolved.

Another item of considerable interest was a prototype displayed by Fratelli Carlessi that enabled samples to be prepared on separate lines, thereby liberating the finishing tunnels.

In footwear, Atom unveiled a new robotic concept for footwear. Its RAMS (robot assistance manufacturing system) represented the first step towards automating the manufacturing of footwear with rubber soles. “This system [is] able to grab standard forms and manipulate them between the various automatic machines that already now manage the processes, halving the labour,” explains Sergio Duilio, head of research and innovation (business unit) at ATOMLab.

“The challenge is to focus on higher added-value manual operations phases.”

Elsewhere, much curiosity was aroused by an autonomous, basket-transporting robot that made deliveries between the stations inside the facility.

Plus, Elitron showed how to optimise workflow in leather cutting by integrating Vision and Opera software. “It’s a workflow revolution,” claimed a spokesperson, “and this approach enables greater overall productivity and higher savings.”

Anzani, meanwhile, pushed on with its Advanced Tracking System (ATS), a labour-saving conveyor with robotic stations that is suitable for all footwear.

The big US leather goods brands have organised worldwide production, and have increased the quantity and quality of workmanship, in part by moving from Asia to countries like Mexico, Colombia and Chile.

Sabal is certainly ready for Industry 4.0, having already signed some contracts with footwear and leather goods firms, (typically contractors of luxury brands), to offer machines that transmit data outside and have interconnections with enterprise operating systems. “Even our subsidiary, BNZ, has a wide range of high-tech machines, and can provide customers with a package comprising one cloud space useful for the data transit,” explained Sabina Bagini. She also noticed that production was returning to Europe; after decades of export prevalence, Italy now accounts for more than half of Sabal Group’s turnover.

Keep growing

Omac strengthened its leadership in leather goods by providing specialised machines for the automated production of belts and small leather goods.

Its 14 new models encompass each phase of the production cycle, including gluing for footwear.

The Italian machinery company exports 75% of its production and its main target markets are India, China and Vietnam, but its president and CEO Alberto Paccagnella also noted positive signs from Latin America, (excluding Brazil).

“The big US leather goods brands organised worldwide production, and have increased the quantity and quality of workmanship, in part by moving from Asia to countries like Mexico, Colombia and Chile,” he said, while conceding that China, India and South-East Asia still handled a great deal of the workload.

The market remained positive overall and Omac, after closing 2016 at around €15 million of consolidated turnover with a 15% increase on 2015, looks forward to continued growth in the year ahead.

Visitors arrive at the show.
Gabriella Marchioni Bocca.
Exhibition space was increased by a fifth for the latest show.
Better equipment leads to improved sustainability.
Attendees got to admire the very latest tanning machinery.

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