More from 1955… Italy looks at America’s control market

1955 Industry Pulse: Can Italy break into the American control market? It doesn’t seem likely, but isn’t impossible either.

By Jordan M. Schultz June 28, 2014

Happy 60th, Control Engineering! Our magazine first published in September 1954. This monthly column in 2014 will resurrect some of our favorite material from the 1954 and 1955 issues. Technologies have progressed, but they continue to pave the way for today’s innovations. Here is a full-length article penned in 1955 about Italy’s potential run at the American control market.

When busy, clever Italy bounded into today’s freewheeling export market, America responded to handsome Italian craftsmanship in diverse objects such as "espresso" pots, car styling, and sewing machines. Will Italian designs soon invade our control field?

Last September’s First International Instrument Exposition touched off this possibility. When Italian manufactures heard of the Philadelphia show, they tried to organize a collective exhibit-similar to the displays by France, Britain, Sweden, and Japan. But the project fell through for want of government support. And instead, a team of Italian experts were sent to Philadelphia to see how they might have fared.

The Italians sailed home tantalized and disappointed. Like most international exhibitors, they had misjudged the show’s intent. The fine optical and laboratory-type goods that are prime Italian stock-in-trade were apparently a very minor part of what Americans call "instrumentation." Unprepared, they had run smack-dab into the overwhelming scope and diversity of a huge trade display of industrial control equipment.

Back in Italy, retrospect revealed a David and Goliath situation. The "instrumentation" part of Italy’s great Associazione Industriali dell’Ottica (Association of Optical Goods Manufacture) accounts for barely 10% of its activities. Producers of meters and control equipment for industry employ only 2,400 workers with a total yearly output valued at around $6 to $7 million. This figure is slightly less than American control exports each year to Italy. Italian manufacturers are apparently hard enough pressed to get their product into domestic factories in the face of American competition-much less sling it overseas to the American Goliath.

But the returning experts’ thoughtful report offers more than despair to chew on. For one thing, it has high praise for the American habit of specialized trade shows. "It is worthwhile noting," they wrote, "that such exhibits are more important for exhibitors than the general fairs, even if visited by millions." The Italians were impressed with the serious audience, the "incredibly lavish" free literature, and the skilled booth attendants, and awed by the product clinics boldly conducted in groups by competing manufacturers.

The Italian team has this to say about American control products: Even the measuring instruments turned out by "mass production" seem to have remarkably fine finish. Yet construction principles are quite similar to Italian. But even more startling are the sophisticated electric, electronic, and pneumatic control modes the U.S.A. has developed and the fact that American prices manage to run about 20% less.

However, after touring all show aisles, they conclude that the U.S. lags behind Germany and Italy in the matter of standardization—"the unification of instrument dimensions and electrical characteristics."

Suppose Italy overcomes these shortcomings in cost, quantity, and complexity. How will it break into the American market?

Some formidable obstacles are noted by the visiting group. The need for American agents and service—above all, service—is stressed. "How could a North American purchase an Italian instrument if he is not sure that there will be someone to set it up, afford technical assistance, and attend to small repairs?"

And will Italian makes become known in America? Experience with an Italian camera here indicated publicity and propaganda costs of around 100 million lire (about $150,000). No doubt American control competition would force equally fierce expenditure.

One of the experts closes the report on this doleful note: "My daily experience with almost all foreign markets leads me to the conclusion that the American market is certainly the most difficult and the most disappointing."

But don’t sell the Fine Italian Hand short on this one note of un-Latin pessimism. It has overcome obstacles before in reaching America.

– 2014 Edits by Jordan Schultz, associate content manager, CFE Media,