Circular Economy: the CIRC-UITS project kicks off

Digital solutions for the end-of-life reuse of electrical components in the automotive and domestic appliances sectors


The three-year project CIRC-UITS (Circular Integration of independent Reverse supply Chains for the smart reUse of IndusTrially relevant Semiconductors), co-financed by the European Commission under its Horizon Europe programme, and coordinated by professors Paolo Rosa and Sergio Terzi from the Politecnico di Milano’s Department of Management, Economics and Industrial Engineering, kicks off.

CIRC-UITS intends to develop new technologies for designing, producing, disassembling and efficiently and sustainably reusing disused electronic components inside new products, but it also intends to define new business models to improve data sharing and standardisation among the industrial leaders involved in the supply chains.

In particular, the advantages of the digital circular economy will be demonstrated through 4 pilot projects:

  • Development of environmentally friendly electronic panels to be incorporated into inverters and battery management systems in electric cars
  • Development of new-generation tyre sensors
  • Development of environmentally friendly flexible processing boards
  • Classification and storage of obsolete printed circuits of various pieces of electrical and electronic equipment

In this way, CIRC-UITS will provide material support to businesses in the automotive and mass-produced electronics sector, demonstrating the benefits that can be obtained from the application of the circular economy paradigm both from the perspective of both the business and supply chain and from the technological and sustainability perspective, through the adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies in the processes through which disused electronic components are managed and in the design of new products.

For more information:

How to cultivate future skills for advanced and sustainable manufacturing?


IoT, 3D printing, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and collaborative robots (cobots) are today present in many production sites and are quickly transforming the manufacturing industry. Despite this, working in a factory remains intrinsically a matter of people, whose skills should evolve at the same pace as the technological innovation.


Sergio Terzi, Professor of Industrial Technologies, School of Management Politecnico di Milano


The manufacturing industry – the classic factory – is a rapidly changing environment. Markets are increasingly more competitive and complex, demanding tighter turnarounds, more variety, more innovation. Many consumers have also – finally – become mindful of the new consumption styles, more sustainable and less impactful on the environment and society. Factories have to find a way to meet these demands.  Or rather, factory managers (fortunately machines alone do nothing yet) must implement changes, creating agile, efficient, modern, clean, sustainable and safe work spaces and environments.

Moreover, the continuous pressure of technological innovation, especially digital, presses at the factory doors – as it does everywhere. Computers, tablets and smartphones are, today, everyday objects, even in production departments, for which we must find a way to use them intelligently and efficiently as well as safely and reliably.

Therefore, factories must change. Or rather, factories are already changing. It is no coincidence that for more than a decade there has been much talk – not only by professionals, but also in the media and in politics – of a new industrial revolution (3,4,5…), of a manufacturing renaissance, of boosting industrial investments, etc. And the revolution is actually happening, one step at a time, one project at a time, one company at a time.

Even close to us, in productive Lombardy, many factories are undergoing transformation. A series of public incentives (the Industria 4.0, Impresa 4.0 and Transizione 4.0 National Plans and the most recent, the NRRP) as well as a large availability of technological solutions have certainly generated a big push towards modernisation.  IoT, 3D printing, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, cobots (who work side by side with humans, not instead of them) are today present in many production sites close to us, into which our graduates enter profitably.  And the same thing is also happening further away, in all national and international territories which have an industrial vocation.  The factory is really changing, and fast too!

However, a factory is not only made of machines, robots and parts to be produced, but also, and above all, of people. Workers, technicians, engineers, department, line and plant managers etc. A factory is such precisely because of its “industrial” organisation, in which different skills come together effectively to produce goods and services to bring to market. The manufacturing industry – from ‘manu facere’, made by hand – is intrinsically a matter of people, of their skills and of their intelligence.  Not everyone is born with all of the necessary skills to navigate complex environments. In fact, the majority of us have to gain experience and knowledge to be able to engage with sophisticated organisations. Even ‘digital’ natives are not born with chips, but learn digital technology from their own daily experiences.  Therefore, skills are to be acquired. The modern factory requires skills not traditionally considered relevant to industrial engineers and technicians’ normal training (from negotiating skills to computer technology). These skills must therefore be provided to both new and ‘old’ generations.  The modern technical university – such as ours – is not exempt from this requirement and must inevitably become a more ‘multidisciplinary’ environment than that which we have been accustomed to in the past.

The current situation calls for ‘fresh’ technical skills which must be constantly maintained (computer science, to name one, evolves quickly). Moreover, it often calls for handling multivariate contexts, in which one should have a good ability to see connections between different aspects (e.g., technology, processes, business, needs, etc.) as well as a certain predisposition to continuous adjustment. It also requires a certain pragmatism as well as an aptitude for ‘getting your hands dirty’ (experimenting, modelling, simulating, prototyping, programming, etc.).  To provide these skills the methods and means of education themselves must change.

For some time now our School has been rising to the challenge of providing new skills for a new world. There are many examples in our courses and programmes, but here we think it is interesting to delineate the experience of our  Teaching Factory Industry 4.0, which has been present in our School since 2017. It is a physical space, in front of our Department of Management, Economics and Industrial Engineering, where we have installed a small digital and connected factory.  There is a semi-automated assembly line, two cobots, two independent workstations, an AGV, different devices for monitoring production and a complete 3D simulator (digital twin).

The Teaching Factory was designed to bring training and application together in the same space, as well as to test new operating models (plant simulation). It is an environment populated by students and researchers and is also used for key courses on production systems in the first year of the degree programme. In 2018, we dedicated the Teaching Factory to our late mentor, prof. Marco Garetti, who was one of the founders of our department’s industrial engineering group and a passionate teacher.

Thanks to the Teaching Factory Industry 4.0 we are able to help our students with pragmatic technology learning, in an environment which closely simulates the reality of modern industrial companies.

The experience gained from the Teaching Factory Industry 4.0 was also very useful when our university implemented the larger project Made – Competence Center Industria 4.0, which is located on the Bovisa Campus in Milan, not far from our School.

As a department, we have strongly contributed to this broader project, which is proving to be a useful method for disseminating the skills required by the new industrial evolution, not just amongst our students, but also in companies.

Project HAwK wins 2021 Switch2Product | Innovation Challenge

Project HAwK proposed by Domenico Nucera (PhD Candidate, Department of Management, Economics and Industrial Engineering), Luca Bertulessi (Researcher, Department of Electronics, Information and Bioengineering) and Tommaso Maioli (Alumnus of Politecnico di Milano) has won the Switch2Product Grant in the category “Industry Transformation”, ranking among the top 26 teams on a total of 250 projects presented at the S2P program, organized by PoliHub, the Technology Transfer Office of Politecnico di Milano and Deloitte’s Officine Innovazione.

HAwK is a hardware accelerator for the analysis of data coming from high data rate sensors, with the aim of reducing costs and energy consumption, enabling Artificial Intelligence on edge.

The 30.000 euros prize will serve the purpose of the technological development of the project, which is going to be realized with the scientific advisory of DIG’s Professors Marco Macchi and Luca Fumagalli and DEIB’s Professor Salvatore Levantino.

Domenico Nucera has enrolled in the 37° PhD cycle in Management Engineering and has been working for 2 years at the Industry 4.0 Lab at DIG. Luca Bertulessi is a researcher at ARPLab at DEIB.
HAwK will be able to promote potential cross-disciplinary activities between the above mentioned DIG and DEIB laboratories.

The awards ceremony was held at MADE Competence Center Industry 4.0, in the Bovisa campus of Politecnico di Milano.


For further information, please click here.

Announcing the start of the TREASURE project

New testing opportunities for new technologies to make the automotive sector more circular


1 June 2021 marked the start of the TREASURE project (leading the TRansion of the European Automotive SUpply chain towards a circulaR futurE), coordinated by Sergio Terzi and Paolo Rosa from the Department of Management, Economics and Industrial Engineering of the School of Management.
Co-funded by the European Commission with the H2020 programme, TREASURE is a Research and Innovation Action (RIA) that aims to offer new testing opportunities for new technologies to make the automotive sector more circular.

Its main objectives are:

  1. to guarantee sustainable use of raw materials in the automotive sector reducing the risks linked to supplies;
  2. to apply the circular economy paradigm to the automotive sector, acting as examples for the manufacturing macrosector;
  3. to deliver better economic, environmental and social performance for vehicles for all users;
  4. to create new supply chains around end-of-life vehicles (ELVs), focusing on the circular use of raw materials.

In this way, TREASURE will deliver tangible support for companies in the automotive sector, providing a practical demonstration of the benefits obtainable from the application of the circular economy paradigm, from the point of view of both business and supply chains and also of technology and sustainability, through the adoption of industry 4.0 technologies in the management processes of ELVs and their parts.

The primary results expected include:

  1. the development of an AI-based tool for analysis and comparison of possible circular supply chains in the automotive sector;
  2. the realisation of a series of successful cases for key players in the management of ELVs, such as car wreckers, scrap metal shredding plants, raw material recycling plants and vehicle manufacturers;
  3. the integration of key enabling technologies for the design, dismantling and efficient sustainable recycling of electronic auto parts.

Partners in the project, coordinated by the Politecnico di Milano, are the Dutch research centre TNO, Zaragoza University in Spain, the professional school at the Università della Svizzera Italiana, the Università degli Studi dell’Aquila, the Dutch consultancy agency Material Recycling and Sustainability B.V., the Estonian company for social studies Edgeryders OU, the Lithuanian LCD screen manufacturer EUROLCDS SIA, the Spanish auto parts manufacturer Walter Pack SL, the vehicle demolition company Pollini Lorenzo e Figli Srl, the leading Spanish car manufacturer SEAT SA, the software developers TXT E-Solutions Spa, the Spanish scrap metal recycling company Industrias Lopez Soriano SA, the Italian National Unification Body, and the French automotive cluster NEXTMOVE.

Human Centered Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 is often referred to as a new industrial revolution and the recent COVID pandemic has further accelerated the already impressive level of investment in new technologies. However, no real transformation can happen if people are not put at the centre of the transformation. Successful implementation of the Industry 4.0 paradigm requires a joint design of technological and organizational variables, with the aim of designing technologies for humans and not instead of humans. Augmentation strategies through participatory design is the promising avenue to a more resilient and smarter manufacturing


Raffaella Cagliano, Professor of People Management and Organization, Co-Director Obstervatory Industry 4.0 Transition, Politecnico di Milano

Digital technologies are nowadays one of the central factors in the transformation of any organization. In the manufacturing context, digitalization is often associated to the concept of Smart Manufacturing or Industry 4.0. Someone even talks about a fourth industrial revolution, referring to the transition towards a new paradigm of interconnected, digitalized and intelligent production systems.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has been a kind of turning point in this process. As also clearly stated in the recent sixth annual State of Manufacturing Report (Fictiv, 2021), digital transformation has become a business imperative, and no longer a “nice to have” or an optional strategic lever. In fact, those companies that have been able to thrive during the COVID-19 year and have shown higher resilience are the ones that invested more in digital technologies in the years before the pandemic. Even during the crisis, investment in digital transformation – also in manufacturing – increased hugely (see e.g. Deloitte, 2021).

Despite this, the results of the introduction of new technologies do not always fulfil promises and in many cases the investments tend to be higher than the advantages. Many change management problems are mentioned as possible cause, and many lament a lack of competencies within the organization, or a lack of right culture, mindset or other.

During our recent years of research on Smart Manufacturing at the School of Management of the Politecnico di Milano, we had the opportunity to study many successful cases of companies that were able to transform their manufacturing systems into completely new models and to improve their operations significantly; often they were even able to rethink their business model and to offer completely new lines of products or services as a consequence of the new capabilities developed and the opportunities brought by the introduction of the new technologies. At the same time, many of these companies were also able to readily react to the COVID crisis, showing a resilience that was higher than the average. They were able to move many activities to a remote or virtual space, to schedule work in a flexible way to accommodate the needs and constraints of people during the emergency, and to introduce health and safety measures more rapidly and effectively.

These companies have a common approach to digital transformation: to put people at the centre of the transformation. We can recognize this approach from two main elements. First of all, they introduced digital technologies within the context of a clear strategy for operations improvement, where technology is seen mainly as a way to facilitate or augment human physical or cognitive capabilities, rather than substitute them. Technologies, on the one hand, are used to facilitate the work of operators by providing all the relevant information, guidance and support that is needed to operate in the most effective way, and to take away those tasks that are heavy, dangerous or where humans don’t add specific value compared to machines, leaving in this way more space to people to contribute according to their most valuable characteristics. Even more, some applications of Industry 4.0 technologies are designed to augment the operators’ potential by providing them with all the data and information needed to make them able to manage complex production systems autonomously and contribute to continuously improve the processes and the systems themselves. Thus, technologies are not used instead of humans, but for humans to enhance their work and contribution.

Second, these companies adopted a systemic approach to technology design and implementation that allowed them to design a system where technology works for humans. This systemic approach requires that technological and organizational factors are designed together, according to the well-known – but not so often used – socio-technical approach. If technology has to support human work, the technical and social systems should be designed together to exploit the joint advantage of the two systems and to design work and processes where the potential of technology and humans are fully exploited. A more common approach is instead the one where technology is designed first, and the consequences of technology on people are managed afterward, trying to adapt a posteriori the knowledge, culture but even the predisposition of people to the technology, with poor results in most cases. This mistake has been perpetuated in every major technological wave or revolution.

Instead, in many successful cases we observed that the joint design of the technology and the work system is realized though participatory approaches, where people are engaged not just in the last phases of change, to inform them or to test the new systems, but instead since the early phases of the project. Operators are asked to express their needs, to provide early feedback on the new systems and sometimes even to provide ideas to further improve or innovate the production systems. When this level of involvement is achieved, the manufacturing system will benefit from the transformation even after the implementation of the technologies, since people are able to continuously improve the way they work and they use the technology, crafting their jobs according to the potentialities discovered in the technologies and in the data that have been made available. This idea of participation, involvement and diffused creativity is coherent with the principles of design thinking that we have seen used in some of the most advanced cases in our study, and that can constitute a new frontier for the application of the methodology outside the context in which it originated.


New life for electronic waste thanks to the circular economy

This virtuous example of circular economy is the result of the Horizon2020 FENIX project in which the Politecnico di Milano is a partner.


Like a phoenix rising out of its own ashes, the FENIX project has achieved its aim of giving new life to electronic waste, turning it into raw materials for eco-compatible products such as new metal filament for 3D printing, eco-friendly metal powders for additive manufacturing and sustainable 3D-printed jewellery.

The Horizon 2020 FENIX Project, in which the Politecnico di Milano is a partner, has drawn to a close after 40 months of work and achievement of its objective to develop new business models and industrial strategies with a view to a circular economy.

The Industry 4.0 Laboratory of the Department of Management, Economics and Industrial Engineering at the Politecnico di Milano has in fact implemented an automated station for the disassembly of mobile phone circuit boards by collaborative-robots (cobots), one of the most advanced automation solutions in robotics technology, as they guarantee operational flexibility while permitting interaction with their surroundings and with the operators who share their tasks.

Thanks to a semiautomatic process, the cobot manages to unsolder the electronic components of the circuit board while preserving their chemical characteristics: it uses a jet of hot air to melt the solder holding together the components so that these can then be detached and processed separately from the board.

Thanks to the circular supply chain set up by the consortium participating in the project, the circuit boards disassembled by the Politecnico di Milano are processed by the University of Aquila, which recovers pure materials (such as copper, tin, gold, silver and platinum) from the boards and their electronic components. Copper and tin are then transformed into metal powders (by MBN Nanomaterialia SpA in Treviso) and filaments suitable for 3D printing (jointly by MBN Nanomaterialia SpA and I3DU and 3DHUB in Athens, Greece), both then tested at the Fundació CIM in Barcelona, Spain. Whereas the precious metals are used by I3DU and 3DHUB in Athens, Greece to create eco-compatible jewellery. Produced and sold through the consortium, these jewels can also be personalised with a 3D scanner service and given the shape of objects or people’s faces.

The hope is that when the project ends, the business models conceived and tested by FENIX will be replicable by other external parties, with a view to promoting the setting up of new circular supply chains.

Also worthy of note is that two of the results developed by the Politecnico di Milano team involved in the FENIX project have been cited by the EU Innovation radar and that an article written by the team received recognition from the publishers Taylor & Francis and appears on the website of the International Journal of Production Research as top cited article. Click here to read the article.


For more info about the project:
Link to the Youtube video:

Building a Roadmap for the Future of Global Manufacturing

Conversation with Marco Taisch
Professor of Advanced and Sustainable Manufacturing Systems, and Operations Management, School of Management, Politecnico di Milano
Scientific Chairman of the World Manufacturing Foundation
President at MADE, Competence Center on Industry 4.0



Tell us about the path that led to the World Manufacturing Forum: why was it launched, and what are its objectives?

Since first edition of the forum held in 2011, the World Manufacturing Forum is organised yearly by Politecnico di Milano with financial support from the European Commission. In 2018, thanks to Confindustria Lombardia and Regione Lombardia, in order to give stability and guarantee an expansion of activities, we created the World Manufacturing Foundation, which organises the annual event and deals with various initiatives.
The Foundation, created as an open international organization involving regional governments, companies, trade associations, industrial and non-industrial, therefore has the strategic objective of restoring the centrality of the manufacturing sector in the political agendas of various countries.

The main tools put in place are the World Manufacturing Forum, that last year attracted around 1500 people in three days, and the World Manufacturing Report, a yearly white paper that, through a process of consultation with experts from the world of business, academia and policy makers, collects opinions and offers visions for the future on a specific issue, which are relevant to manufacturing, suggesting key recommendations.

In the first edition, in 2018, we addressed the issue of the future of manufacturing as a lever for creating economic and social well-being; in the second, last year, we focused on the fundamental skills required by the sector. And this year, in the event that will take place on 11 and 12 November, we will talk about artificial intelligence.


The 2020 edition of the Forum has a unique flavour, a flavour relating to distance, but also to post-Covid recovery. What kind of edition will it be?

The format of the event will change due to the need for social distancing, but only in part: it will take place at the traditional venue in Villa Erba di Cernobbio with a maximum of 200 participants, with worldwide streaming.
We asked ourselves, like everyone else, what will be the impact of Covid on the manufacturing sector at regional and global level, and to give us an answer we created the “Back to the Future” project (the quote is intentional), new this year.
We “decomposed” the complexity of the problem into 14 sub-themes and created 14 working groups accordingly, each one coordinated by an expert (managers, representatives of the associative world, policy-makers, academics), who were asked to discuss and analyse the impact of Covid on their area of expertise, and to give recommendations.
We have already shared online, with the public, several drafts of documents and videos, produced by these workshops, whose results will be presented on the first day of the Forum, on November 11. On November 12 we will present the World Manufacturing Report.
If I can give a little preview, next year we will talk about digital transformation as an enabler of manufacturing sustainability, thus bringing together the two most important trends in the sector.


We come from the epic situation of Industry 4.0. How can digitisation in the factory world be a competitive advantage for boosting production and starting up again faster? 

Before the pandemic, it was “normal” to say that digitisation was the competitive advantage, and that’s the way we characterised the 4.0 industry. Now we have changed the statement: it is no longer an advantage, but a business prerequisite.
During the lockdown we saw how digitisation ensured business continuity for many companies that had already invested in this area. For others, unfortunately, there was nothing to be done.
It was a tragic way of realising, undoubtedly, that it affected those companies which, out of ignorance or inertia, had not paid attention to this technological trend.
In our country in particular, which was slower to adopt new technologies, the pandemic has accelerated the awareness of the importance of digitisation.


Large companies and small businesses: who has the advantage in this fourth industrial revolution?

Large companies have been digitising in our country for some time now, even before the “National Industry Plan 4.0” of 2017. Small and medium-sized enterprises, were, in fact, lagging behind. It was thanks to the plan, and the planned tax incentives, that they became aware of this opportunity for modernisation. Paradoxically, it was by talking about tax incentives that it was also possible to train in the field of technology, and this had a huge impact on the cultural growth of our country on these issues.
It is very important that the national plan has continuity over time, and that it is not a one-off incentive, to enable businesses—especially small ones—to plan and build a training and expertise programme. And today, to do so, they have several tools at their disposal, such as the Digital Innovation Hubs, and especially the Competence Centers. The Politecnico di Milano has put itself in the forefront of this last tool by creating MADE, a competence center that, gathering the skills of multiple departments, coordinates the work together with 44 other partners from the academic and industrial world.


What, in your opinion, are the 3 key words on the evolution of digital transformation in factories over the next 6 months?

First of all “servitisation”, i.e. the development of new business models that are being created thanks to new digital activities carried out in remote industries.
And then the second, “remote” or, if you like, “industrial smart working.”
Finally “resilience”, meaning adaptability, reconfigurability and flexibility of the factory and the supply chain.

Industry 4.0 and relocation choices: do digital technologies reduce the need for internationalisation of efficiency-seeking firms?

There is evidence that Industry 4.0 technologies, offsetting the low-cost or high-productivity advantages of some foreign countries, may be a valid alternative to internationalisation for efficiency-seeking firms, which in some cases happen to reshore. Will Covid-19 contribute to boost this trend?


Stefano Elia, Associate Professor of International Business
School of Management Politecnico di Milano


For several decades, firms have offshored manufacturing activities to countries offering low-cost labour and cheaper raw materials (Kedia & Mukherjee, 2009; Mudambi, 2008). Cost reductions were the primary reasons for US firms offshoring to Mexico and other emerging countries (Lewin & Couto, 2007) and for the enormous transfer of manufacturing activities by Western European firms to Eastern Europe (Fratocchi et al., 2015; Kinkel & Maloca, 2009; Schmeisser, 2013). As a result, more fragmented and geographically dispersed value chains emerged globally (e.g. Gereffi & Lee, 2012) and regionally (e.g. Arregle et al., 2009; Asmussen, 2009; Rugman & Verbeke, 2004).

While this trend is not over, we are witnessing the spatial reconfiguration of these supply chains driven by the emergence of new low-cost and high-productivity destinations, and of different cost and quality factors between countries, which modifies their relative attractiveness (Ellram, Tate, & Petersen, 2013). Companies’ intentions to change their manufacturing source is shifting from “offshore” being the predominant option, to “relocating to third countries” (i.e. moving from a first to a second host country) and “back-reshoring” (i.e., moving from the host to the home country) being viable alternatives to offshore (The Economist, 2013). Barbieri, Elia, Fratocchi, & Golini (2019) recently provided evidence that relocating to third-party countries was a preferred option for efficiency-seeking firms and suggested that by moving manufacturing between countries they adopted a “footloose” relentless search of locations to minimise costs and enhance productivity.
This trend has begun to be challenged and (at least partially) inverted by the new disruptive phenomenon. Industry 4.0, dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which denotes the emergence and diffusion of new, integrated digital industrial technologies that are widely acknowledged to hold a disruptive potential on manufacturing systems, products, and business models (Frank, Dalenogare, & Ayala, 2019; Strange & Zucchella, 2017). Industry 4.0 provides efficiency-seeking firms with a unique opportunity to use valuable digital technologies to offset the low-cost or high-productivity location advantages of some foreign countries and provide a valid alternative to internationalisation. Recent research undertaken by Politecnico di Milano in partnership with the University of Bologna (prof. Paolo Barbieri) and the University of L’Aquila (prof. Luciano Fratocchi) has provided empirical evidence of this phenomenon. Based on a sample of 118 European firms, the research showed that the development of a firm-level Industry 4.0 competitive advantage (based on the digital technology patenting) could reverse the propensity of the cost-saving firms to relocate to third-party countries, and encourage back-reshoring. Conversely, productivity-enhancing firms increase their tendency to undertake back-reshoring only when their home country adopts Industry 4.0 policies, i.e. a set of national initiatives to transform the production system by adopting digital technologies across several firms and industries.

The reasons behind the asymmetry in the drivers of back-reshoring decisions for cost-saving and productivity-enhancing firms can be found in the location advantages that are searched by these two types of firms. Firms investing abroad to save on costs are likely to exploit the lower cost of labour offered by some host locations. The development of Industry 4.0 technologies by cost-saving firms is a strategy to substitute for low-skilled labour with technology (Ancarani et al., 2019). This situation offers the extraordinary opportunity to switch from a host country-level cost-based comparative advantage to a firm-level competitive advantage based on Industry 4.0 technology intensity. Such a firm-level competitive advantage is likely to increase the degree of freedom of the firm in its relocation choice, including making it possible to return home. After obtaining similar (or a superior) level of cost-savings with digital technologies, the firm can afford back-reshoring to exploit Industry 4.0-based competitive advantages without facing internationalisation burdens such as coordination and transportation costs, institutional and cultural differences etc. (Stentoft et al., 2016; Wiesmann et al., 2017).

Firms investing abroad to enhance their productivity are likely to rely on other advantages than merely the exploitation of low labour costs while still pursuing conditions that can make them competitive on price. The primary mechanism such firms can use to enhance their productivity via cross-border investment is to “learn-by-interacting”. This occurs by gaining access to different international business networks that expose the firms to the various technological, managerial and organisational capabilities that are available in the foreign country’s ecosystem (Alcácer et al., 2016; Bertrand & Capron, 2015). In other words, firms can enhance their productivity by sourcing knowledge, resources and experience from the foreign production system by establishing economic relationships with the networks of suppliers, buyers, competitors, partners, associations and labour markets (Alcácer et al., 2016; Alcacer & Oxley, 2014; Johanson & Vahlne, 2009; Oxley & Sampson, 2004; Oxley & Wada, 2009; Pisano & Shih, 2009). This is possible when there is a technological and competitive gap between the host and the home country (Bertrand & Capron, 2015, p. 644). Introducing an Industry 4.0 policy in the home country could enable the host economy to fill any gaps as policies can be designed for many companies and attempt significant changes within the production system that increase competitiveness and technological intensity. This offers firms located abroad for productivity-enhancing reasons the opportunity to implement their learning-by-interacting strategy in the home country, reducing the need to relocate to third-party countries in favour of the probability of returning home. This allows a policy implication to emphasise the crucial role of Industry 4.0 not only in transforming the national production system but re-attracting the productivity-seeking firms located abroad and contribute to the return of manufacturing within Europe.

The Covid-19 outbreak is expected to boost the relocation phenomenon further. According to UNCTAD, this health emergency might have a potential long-term effect on the reconfiguration of the Global Value Chains (GVCs). The pandemic is demonstrating how having too many interconnected and distant countries might become a critical issue for global production networks. This is especially true when they are also dependent on one main manufacturing centre (such as China), and all nodes are asynchronously subject to an emergency that stops production activities and shuts down the entire GVC for some time. This worldwide health emergency might lead to a reconfiguration of the GVCs, and a partial relocation or de-concentration in fewer or closer countries that were less affected by the pandemic or which could ensure faster and more coordinated recovery of the production activities and the value chain. Hence, Covid-19 is expected to further accelerate some trends that were already happening, i.e. decoupling (or loosening) of GVC ties and relocation across countries, which were prompted by other forces such as the trade wars and the challenges posed by climate change. All these forces demand more regional, resilient and sustainable supply chains (Economist, 2020). This goal can be reached only through widespread adoption of digital technologies, which facilitate the reconfiguration and partial reshoring of the GVCs, and provide a strategic tool to redesign the firms and countries’ competitive advantages.

The challenge of circularity in extended supply chains

Awareness around the environmental impact of products and processes and moving towards the sustainable use of natural resources is increasing in Europe. As such, the circular economy paradigm is obtaining even more success.

Based on this, the H2020 FENIX project, of which the Politecnico di Milano is a partner, aims to develop a new set of business models and industrial strategies with a view to facilitating circular products and services.

Three pilot plants will be established thanks to the development of sustainable processes for the combined treatment of different types of e-waste (e.g. printed circuit boards):

1) A modular, multi-material, reconfigurable pilot plant producing metallic powders for additive manufacturing processes
2) A modular, multi-material, reconfigurable pilot plant producing 3D printed gems
3) A modular, multi-material, reconfigurable pilot plant producing advanced filaments for 3D printing processes

The three pilot plants will be designed in such a way as to exploit Industry 4.0 solutions (e.g. smart sensors) which are able to send online data in real time through dedicated websites developed by FENIX.

The result of this is that production capacity will be shareable amongst the different actors involved in very different supply chains, by encouraging the involvement of end users (both private users and companies) in industrial processes and offering new services to companies for monitoring and controlling industrial plants.

The scientific role of the Department of Management, Economics and Industrial Engineering takes many forms. Firstly, the identification of new circular business models able to make use of pilot plants developed in FENIX. Secondly, the assessment of how Industry 4.0 technologies could support circular processes, specifically those related to the disassembly of Printed Circuit Boards (PCB). Finally, the Department is responsible for the dissemination and communication of the FENIX project and the management of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) strategies.

One of the initiatives promoted by the Department related with FENIX involves collecting obsolete mobiles/smartphones. The mobile phones will be disassembled by the Industry 4.0 Lab in order to facilitate the recovery of valuable materials from electronic components through eco-friendly chemical processes. These materials, once transformed into metal powders, will be reused in additive manufacturing processes.

FENIX is also promoting a set of success stories related to the adoption of circular practices in different industrial sectors. The goal is to use real-world examples to demonstrate that the adoption of circular economy principles will allow for the creation of more sustainable supply chains by improving quality, market value and the alternative exploitation of secondary materials.

Finally, FENIX aims to integrate Key Enabling Technologies (KETs) for the efficient recovery of secondary resources within the same industrial plant. FENIX will consider three types of KETs:
1) Advanced production systems: a wide number of sensors will be embedded in each module that makes up the FENIX pilot plant.
2) Industrial bio-technologies: since the initial stages, FENIX has taken into account the use of biometallurgy for the sustainable recovery of materials from different types of waste.
3) Nanotechnologies: this type of materials technology allows for an improvement ofmaterials’ mechanical properties, thermal and electrical conductivity and overall functional properties.

FENIX (Future business models for the Efficient recovery of Natural and Industrial secondary resources in eXtended supply chain contexts)

Manufacturing 4.0. The Future is Now

If there’s a widespread misperception regarding Industry 4.0, then it’s the idea of considering it as a revolution which, although imminent, has yet to happen. Nothing could be further from the truth: Industry 4.0 is now. The transformation is already taking place, and if, on the one hand, many companies are adopting the most innovative technology and are rethinking the frontiers and forms of their business, on the other, there are those that still resist.

“It’s impossible not to embrace this transformation,” said Sergio Terzi, Director of the Management Academy at the MIP and Co-director of the Industry 4.0 Observatory, as he opened proceedings at the round table on Industry 4.0: How companies are evolving. This took place at the MIP Politecnico di Milano as part of MBA Day on 9 March.

Also taking part were Antonio Bosio, Head of Product and Solutions at Samsung, and Ilker Ahmet Kalali, Head of Industrial Engineering and Smart Manufacturing at Pirelli Tyre. The event also took an in-depth look at the various formats of the MIP’s MBA programme (International Full Time MBA, International Part Time MBA and Distance Learning MBA).

Bosio and Kalali both explained how their companies, which are leaders in their respective fields, are reshaping their strategies. They also talked about the new opportunities and challenges that are presented by Industry 4.0. Samsung, for example, is placing a lot of emphasis on B2B2C (business to business to consumer). We are inclined to see the Korean multinational as a company that makes  smartphones and electrical appliances  for the consumer market. “The fact of the matter is that we work with a lot of companies,” Bosio explained. “It’s true we do develop technology for the home, but we then use it for a range of different businesses. This is consumerization. Let’s think, for example, about wearables like smartwatches, which today are seen as gadgets, whereas they have important applications in the industrial sector where they can simplify manufacturing processes and help increase productivity”.

Augmented reality also plays a role: “We’re working in experimenting technology that enables clients to browse through infinite virtual catalogues and to try out different pairs of glasses without having to put them on physically”.

Such technology is, however, also useful in production plants, says Kalali: “Augmented reality provides workers with a guide in real time, by showing them the output of the various steps that have to be taken.”

The concept of personalisation is another cornerstone of Industry 4.0. It’s also crucial for Pirelli Tyre: “Today clients increasingly demand highly personalised products that are designed for their specific needs. This is particularly true for Pirelli in the case of the top end of the market. The company has to be predictive rather than reactive, and in order for that to happen it needs to concentrate on two elements: connectivity and data analysis. These are two tools which, when used alongside a scientific approach towards behaviour  analysis, can produce remarkable results. Above all, they can help create added value.”

This is a major challenge because, as Kalali went on to explain, it cannot be separated from sustainability, a concept that companies must play a leading role in promoting.

According to Bosio, “In order to bring all these elements together, Industry 4.0 needs to understand, innovate and obtain results.” Engineering alone isn’t enough: it needs to go hand in hand with creativity and determination. Or, as Kalali put it, “It requires brain and not just brawn”