Machine and system modularity: a strategic choice by companies working in Europe

Now we want to return to speaking about technology, but in a rather different tone: technology for the future, i.e., the choices made today that can influence our future industrial development.

Alessandro Mazzeranghi - MECQ S.r.l.

First of all, a semi-serious premise: what is modularity?

And here we are asking ourselves once again... how can we survive the current economic situation and technological and industrial impoverishment of our continent? An old continent yes, but not yet inthe grave, we hope! Well, we have spoken about organization as an opportunity, now we want to return to speaking about technology, but in a rather different tone: technology for the future, i.e., the choices made today that can influence our future industrial development. Please allow me to say how much I was pleasantly impressed by the presentation of the new brand image of the Körber Process Solutionsgroup on the last issue of Perini Journal. Great, the idea of broad strategy! But the expression that caught my attention most was “modular solutions”. Wow, finally! Someone saying it on a strategic and not just technical/commercial level!


So what is this modularity then? Simple! Just think about LEGOs and there youhave it! I do apologize to the younger generation who may not have played with LEGOs as much as we of the “older” generation did…

LEGO: an ensemble of parts having well-defined shapes and functions that assembled together give rise to a whole that is far superior - for meaning and functions - to the individualparts simply summed together. A circle of walls around an aristocratic estate is more or less the sum of all the individual bricks comprising it, but if those same bricks are used to build the belfry of a cathedral,they are much more important than the sum of the individual bricks. Instead, we are used to thinking in the opposite fashion: I want the belfry! How you build it is your problem, my dear architect. NO, wrong, because then our architect disappears, emigrates, is dismissed by a dissatisfied client, and if we want to raise the steeple, what do we do then? We’ll just have to call someone else who, not knowing exactly the prior work done, perfectly manages to... destroy the entire steeple and perhaps even the belfry!


Getting concrete. Today a company working in Europe must be in control of its own possible development. Hence, it must be able to assemble its products pursuant to the most appropriate technical and market logic, without having to always recur to the manufacturer or worse, to THAT particular manufacturer.

So the issue of modularity is not merely some great idea by those selling machines and systems, but anabsolute necessity of those who buy and use machines and systems. We all know that today, in the Tissue field, the marketing aspect performs an important role - a marketing that tends to differentiate the perception of the product by a clientele whose needs change in the course of time, sometimes even abruptly. In this aspect, paradoxically, the crisis does not halt evolution but rather changes its lines of progress. So the market, and the commercial figures within the company who obviously try to promptly answer expressed and unexpressed needs, determine the development of the machines and systems for production. And times mustper force be short!


We know that (up until now) we are not sa ying anything new; we were already saying the same things 20 and more years ago. But the semi-artisan approach adopted then, during the “fat”years, possessed such a high degree of inefficiency that it is no longer replicable today. So, in two words:flexibility but inefficiency. And even current legislation related to safety and machine and system certification has changed so much that it imposes an organic approach to the problem. If we say: “designing production facilities oriented towards modularity and updating”, perhaps we are instead introducing a new factor. And in those European scenarios where production sites are closing, do those that survive have along-standing history? The sentence then becomes: “updating production sites pursuant to an industrial policy that focuses on modularity and change”. And all of the above with a view towards: flexibility and efficiency.


Industrial policy and technical choices. The policy is the one we have mentioned: flexibility and efficiency through modularity. At this point, let’s get technical for a minute. In the Tissue field, perhaps more than in others, paper production and converting systems and machines can be seen as a sequence of distinct elements, each of which handles a specific “process”. The ensemble of these processes yields the finished product. Construction logic, too, partially follows this division of the different processes. Hence the tissue cycle, from cellulose to the palletized product, takes place through a succession of machines and systems that already feature a few clear-cut differences, the most evident of which is the one between paper mill and converting, often embodied by a separation of the industrial facility itself.

But within each of the two macro-blocks we can make further divisions. For example, in converting wehave those machines that actually convert (from the reel of paper to the product), then those for packaging and so on…

If for converting we consider a machine for making rolls, we can further divide the production phases into functional units. Each unit yields a precise product characteristic, i.e., it answers a market demandin terms of product desirability.


So, when the market desires something different, I must change the rolls machine - notthe entire machine but just some portions of it. This change can be obtained through a “simple”format change or by substantially modifying a part of it. And now we come to the point: the rolls machine is a machine, at least from the unwinders to the rewinder or the accumulator (we are excluding the corewinder and the log saw) and as such it is designed, produced and CE marked. It is clear that upon purchasing a new rolls machine, the customer can choose its composition (how many unwinders, what type of printing unit, etc.), but from then on, he is “stuck”. That is a machine with only one certification and every time I want to substantially modify something (for example add a different embosser).

I find myself faced with two problems:

• A strictly technical problem: replacing a portion of the machine with all its cabling that connect the rest of the machine to a unique and centralized “intelligence”, with something different that will in any case have to correctly dialogue with the rest of the machine.

• A technical/legal problem: since we are speaking about a modification that goes beyond ordinary maintenance, I must certify (CE mark) the entire machine a new and, if needed, update the older parts to the state-of-the-art level of safety in force at the time of the new certification.

These two issues have posed great limits on the almost continuous practice of updating/adapting machines that had characterized the beginning of the 1990s, with clear damage to flexibility and consequent stiffening of the production capacities of companies working in Europe (among these, Italian companiesare the ones that, historically, have suffered the mostin the world of tissue because recourse to the practice of “cut and sew” was very diffused).


Solutions? Lots of them. All we have to do is imitate other fields close to tissue (this is already being done, as I’ll explain, on corrugated cardboard lines, on bottling and packing lines, on dust bagging lines, etc.). So, if I want top flexibility, I should have a “rolls line” comprised of lots of individual machines, each CE marked and hence each safe on its own, that I can move and assemble as I best see fit,with no need to certify anything but simply enslaving the “individual machines” to a sole synchronization system that will coordinate their operation (without performing any safety function since safety is guaranteed by the individual machines).


Advantages? Evidently, maximum possible flexibility, the possibility of progressive amortizations, the possibility of moving individual machines from one converting line to another, the elimination of responsibilities related to certification, the possibility to easily create a line featuring machines from different suppliers (and hence the chance to always buy what is best for the companyin that moment). Disadvantages? Surely there will be an impact on the initial investment cost, the spaces occupied by the line willbe greater with respect to today’s (given the same technological characteristics), the engineering of the user company will have to perform a more foundational role…


The obstacle today, however, is not the user but rather the market offer by the different manufacturers, each of whom - as far as I understand it - sees in the fragmentation of the product a potential commercial obstacle and the break of a sort of monopoly on the customer. If we look at manufacturers’ industrial policies (we are not speaking about rolls machines but of the entire tissue production line!) we see that the ambition is to supply large chunks of turn-key systems. It is not just a commercial issue, but also a much more simple one (piece-meal supply is always a source of problems in start-up and of disputes between the parties involved).

So we must ask ourselves a question - the only important question, in our opinion. If we succeed in intervening on production flexibility, can we obtain a real competitive advantage for tissue producers in Europe? If the answer is no...never mind and let’s think about emigrating! •

  • illustrations by Scarabottolo
  • illustrations by Scarabottolo
  • illustrations by Scarabottolo
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