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Technology as a Key Modernity Factor 2

To complete this analysis, we would like to conclude with some final considerations in favour of technology. The first one is based on the assumption that technology is certainly one of the most powerful modernity factors in nowadays shoemaking. Making shoes is an old business, with traditional rules and, most of the time, traditional vices that shoe companies, mostly used to work as they normally do and very reluctant to give up this old habits in favour of an unknown and unpredictable future, very seldom seem to be willing to abandon.

Technology gives them a reason and in a certain sense an obligation; by modernizing their old equipment with technologically up to date ones, companies are not only improving the efficiency of their processes by increasing the volume of production they can achieve with the same work force, but they are also forced to change, in one way or the other, their work organization. The work environment becomes cleaner, safer more attractive also for young workers that tend to have quite a negative idea of the “old shoe factory”. In fact shoe factories tend to be more alike modern automotive or machinery factories with more supervisors and less and less workers assigned to repetitive or dangerous activities. The factory transforms from an old fashioned assembly line to a modern automated plant in which human skill are correctly valued rather than abused. It happens often that when one or more new machines or systems are introduced in the factory (think only of the methodological change that the migration from a manual to a digital design process implies) , the company takes the opportunity of reanalyzing and reorganizing its processes thus not only modernizing its equipment but also, and more important, its relevant technical processes.

Technology and product quality

Product quality is the result of a complex equation in which many different factors play a role: from raw materials and components, to the skill of the workers, to ambient conditions, to level of control and monitoring of the single steps of the process, to the goodness of the organizational schemes and of the planning strategies to run the production activities. Each of these factors can play individually its role in this equation. What technology brings together is a higher level of control on most of the process steps and a constancy of performance that human operators cannot achieve by themselves.

Its is not always said that automatic machines work better than human operators, but they (at least for a much greater extent) work more constantly; their performance, once the machine has been properly programmed and tuned for the specific task it is aimed at performing, is always the same, it is very predictable and much more easily controlled. Human operators , even the most skilled ones, can have very variable performance from day to day and depending on the level of skill they are maturating in their learning process. To conclude, high technology machines are not necessarily better than workers, but they are more controllable and predictable , hence they allow the company to achieve a much higher constancy on the quality of the produced goods.

But technology is not only machines; think for instance of what Information Technologies allow companies to do; besides the obvious implications of adopting for instance CAD systems in design, IT are almost everywhere; in the exchange of information and technical data with the suppliers and the retailers, in planning and managing virtually all the company processes, in monitoring the production steps, in controlling in real time the evolution of production  and of its related quality through time.

These technologies make possible an unprecedented level of control on virtually all company processes; this control means identifying as soon as they arise, problems of any kind: a supplier who is late in delivering its components, an ambient condition that is changing and that can then affect the goodness of some processes, a failure in one machine or a mistake of an operator. An early warning on any one of these problems, means the possibility of taking corrective actions soon and efficiently so that a delivery will be made in time, the quality of the products is not affected, a work schedule is redefined, the mistake is corrected. All this contribute to the global quality of the products and of the company service as a whole.

Future and emerging technologies

What is beyond the corner? What should we expect from tomorrow technologies in the area of footwear design and manufacturing?  Outcomes are to be expected in various areas: CAD systems for instance, for which the key words are stronger integration between the different functionalities and “knowledge base”, i.e. capturing  the knowledge of the shoe designers in rules that the system can then apply more or less by itself. New materials are also under study, such as materials that can actively change their shape and their properties under appropriate stimuli so that also the functionalities and characteristics of the shoe that adopts them can change. New process technologies are also under investigation, with the aim of removing or at least alleviating those that are the typical bottlenecks in shoe production (like assembling the upper by stitching together the different parts, or making the lasts as the tool without which shoes do not exist; quite enormous barriers to removed). Research is also focusing on what will be the shoe product in five to ten years from now: will it remain a passive low tech kind of device mainly aimed at protecting the foot and at being nice and elegant enough to make the ego of the consumer happy, or will it evolve in a complex, active , high tech equipment that enhances the performance of the wearer, talks to the other electronic gears that he brings with and that does something more than being “only” elegant? (having a look at the Adidas – 1 website or at the most recent alliances between Nike and Apple for the IPOD system gives an idea of what we mean here).

Whichever of the above directions will be taken, it is sure that technology will have an ever increasing role perhaps in a different way than the one we used to consider until today: it will be more and more difficult in future to separate process from product technologies, materials from machines, IT and software from hardware. Technology will be pervading, universal , transversal to different sectors and applications; hence technology providers will have to change and evolve too, cooperation among specialist of different sectors will become more important, multidisciplinarity will be a must.  For what is considered to be a “mature” sector, quite a challenging yet interesting future is in front of us.

The most advanced technologies for the shoe and leather products sectors are exhibited at SIMAC - TANNING TECH
Bologna 28. - 30. October 2008

(11/04/2008)

  
 
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