Walk a mile in my (Bruno Magli) shoes

Stylish products may not fit everyone's taste or pocketbook, but custom-tailored vision systems may be coming into fashion.

Stylish products may not fit everyone's taste or pocketbook, but custom-tailored vision systems may be coming into fashion.

By Andy Wilson

America and Italy have few things in common. However, in studying the demographics of both nations, two commonalities become immediately obvious—both countries are democratic republics whose populations love to eat pizza. Apart from that, there are few similarities. Italy is slightly larger than Arizona, its population is four times smaller than the United States population. America's gross domestic product, at approximately $7 trillion, is seven times larger than that of the Italian Republic.

While both countries produce some exceptional products, Italy is best known, perhaps, for its fine selection of wines, fashion, high-performance sports cars, and shoes. In fact, I am writing this editorial in a fine pair of $650 Castroms, hand-tailored for me by Bruno Magli (Bologna, Italy; www.brunomagli.it).

But what of machine-vision systems, I hear you ask. The answer to this question emerged at the October VISION 2003 exhibition in Stuttgart, Germany. There, Tattile (Brescia, Italy; www.tattile.com), a designer and systems integrator of machine-vision and automation products, used its 1000-plus square feet of exhibition space to highlight the company's products in a very novel, Italian way. To some, the booth resembled a Magli's showroom more than that of an OEM vision company.

Each of Tattile's products were highlighted under glass, leaving the impression that these were somewhat more than boxes filled with gate arrays, microprocessors, camera interfaces, and embedded operating systems. They were something to be used, and, at the same time, something to be admired. Just like my Castroms. And, of course, no data sheets were available. Who would question the integrity of products presented in such a manner?

To understand more about the company philosophy, I spoke to Robert Fenwick-Smith, the newly appointed managing director of Tattile. Established in 1988 by a team with experience in quality control, the company's mission had been to provide solutions to the engineering problems associated with automated production lines. In 1995, Tattile set a different goal: to develop products to make inspection and quality control quicker and easier. To date, the 120-person company has a turnover of between 16 million euros and 17 million euros, with 98% of its business based in Italy.

After discussing the company at length, Fenwick-Smith confided that 80%–90% of this business was with just six companies. Tattile's secret, it emerged, is that it deals with these companies as an OEM supplier of vision equipment and as an OEM engineering company, hand-holding customers through every aspect of their problem. To highlight this, Fenwick-Smith showed me a blister packaging system that the company had "re-engineered" for Industria Macchine Automatiche (Bologna, Italy; www.ima.it). Vision inspection, motor control, lighting, and process control had been integrated seamlessly.

To increase business, revealed Fenwick-Smith, the company plans to open an office in the USA. Having seen many European companies attempt to generate business in this way, I was at first very skeptical. The USA is not Italy. It is a lot bigger. Products are distributed through manufacturers' representatives, dealers, and distributors. Everyone takes a cut, all down the line. Marketing, advertising, and product promotion are king, and people are not used to purchasing Bruno Magli shoes.

How then could a relatively small Italian company compete in such an environment? Fenwick-Smith was not phased by this argument. He would use the same philosophy that had worked in Italy. "We need only a handful of companies to work with," he said, "and we are free to cherry-pick them." I wish Fenwick-Smith and his company success. With such a philosophy, Tattile will probably not murder its US competition, but it is likely to garner the same respect it has developed over the past 15 years in Italy!

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