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OM in the News: How 3-D Printing is Saving the Italian Artisan

May 11, 2015
A worker in Italy polishes a lampshade created by a 3D printer.

A worker in Italy polishes a lampshade created by a 3D printer.

Northeast Italy’s industrial heartland stretches roughly from Milan to Venice. In the 1960s, farmers in the region began setting up small family-owned businesses, each specializing in just one small part of a finished product. Within a generation, many of these companies became world leaders in their respective fields, and small Italian cities thrived as manufacturing hubs. The town of Montebelluna once produced 3/4 of the world’s ski boots. About 70% of Europe’s chairs were designed and manufactured by 1,200 small outfits near Manzano.

But the region has fallen on hard times. Italy’s craftsmen have been undermined by competition from China–and the industrial sector has shed about 135,000 jobs—17% of its total workforce. A few years ago, in an effort to diversify offerings, one firm teamed up with an artist to create manufacture-to-order lamp shades and jewelry on 3D printers. The pieces take shape slowly, each layer fused from powdered nylon by a high-power laser. The project was a surprising success, building products that no one had earlier envisioned.

Techniques such as the 3D printing have helped turn northeastern Italy into an unlikely hothouse of innovation, writes BusinessWeek (May 5, 2015). Last year growth in the region was positive for the first time since 2007. A trade school in Trento for 14-18 year olds, specializing in fashion design and tailoring, recently added a class in which students incorporate 3D printing, laser cutting, and microcontroller chips into their designs. “You have to offer the jobs of the future,” says the administrator.

The use of 3D printing and other similar technologies is expected to boost revenue at Italy’s small-scale manufacturers by 15% and allow companies to compete with multinationals, like YouTube videos hold their own against traditional video production. The advent of rapid prototyping and other innovations means “you can compensate for your disadvantages with variety, customization, and a rapid response to what the market is demanding,” says an Italian business professor. “If something doesn’t work, you simply stop producing. You haven’t filled a warehouse.”

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Name several other clusters and their products.

2. What are the advantages of 3-D printing in this Italian industry?

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