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FARE INSIEME - Ep. 18 - Datalogic - an Emilian high-tech giant leader in the bar-code reader sector invented fifty years ago by the ‘starter-upper’ engineer

«The solutions, even if protected by patents, can be copied, but people remain the most important value»

23/12/2021

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Almost three thousand employees all over the world, 1,200 patents by over 500 engineers and an R&D investment of between 10 and 12% of the turnover. “Research is key, but technology is not an end to itself and it must be developed based on clients’ needs. The solutions, even if protected by patents, can be copied, but people remain the most important value”. Giampaolo Colletti interviews Datalogic CEO Valentina Volta for FARE Insieme
 

di Giampaolo Colletti
@gpcolletti

Had it been established today, we would have described it as a start-up. Or, actually, a scale-up due to its ability to innovate, internationalise, grow in turnover and raise interest. However, this story started in the Bologna hinterland in 1972. A story that, from the University of Bologna travelled around the whole world, changing the market everywhere. Datalogic entered the tumultuous 1970s, characterised by a global economic crisis and the order dictated by the Cold War, the Watergate in the US and the “Years of Lead” in Italy. While the world was living through this period of protest, there were also people working on propositions. Studying, experimenting, even making mistakes, but trying again and finally making it. In the end, this is the recipe for innovation, with those coincidences that help the daring. Datalogic was born to meet the needs of packaging companies when it came to mechanical controls with optical-electronic sensors. My father started this entrepreneurial activity from scratch. After all, how these companies got in touch with universities to find electronic solutions for their machines proved a coincidence. A professor asked my dad, who was an assistant at the time, to work on it. And he accepted the challenge. At the time, the university approach was closely linked to theory, so what my dad did was truly revolutionary. In 2022, we will celebrate our 50th anniversary. We are a business based on innovation,” explains Valentina Volta, CEO of Datalogic since 2017, a leading company in the world of the bar-code readers invented fifty years ago by her father Romano.

The starter-upper engineer.
However, let’s proceed step by step and, before reaching the present day, let’s go back to Mr. Volta and that intuition which he had after years of study. His garage, to refer to an image so dear to the US classic idea of innovation, was located in a room which was part of the rectory of the San Michele Arcangelo parish in Quarto Inferiore, a town of two thousand people forming part of the Granarolo dell’Emilia municipality in the Bologna province. The idea was launched to innovate the global packaging valley, as most leading global companies to do with packaging are located in this part of Emilia. Volta created a first device called Color Mark Reader to detect slight contrast differences on the packaging material, which is still installed on all packagers. But the truly disruptive innovation was the capability of combining optics with electronics which, by means of sensors, led to the creation of the first bar-code readers. Thanks to the swift internationalization of the company, Mr. Volta came into contact with this technology in the US in the mid-1970s and immediately realised its great potential, and so started to develop the first readers for industrial use in Europe.  The bar-code reading technology for product identification was first developed by US university professors in 1948 and was first implemented in 1974 in a supermarket in Troy, Ohio, then making history. Nowadays, that first scanner is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington and, thanks to an important acquisition, has been part of Datalogic’s story since 2005. My father, who had a practical approach and great manual skills learned at technical school, started to test these products based on demand and, once he left university, he started working for himself: he developed, produced and sold in trade fairs in Germany and Europe. What dad did was rather risky at the time, there were no backers, you needed to collect payments from clients in order to pay suppliers. Our company is still that visionary and entrepreneurial business it was at the beginning. Our roots and values have not changed, as we have maintained our pioneering spirit. My dad is the executive president and still supports our strategic decisions,” reports Valentina Volta. To think that it was only him in the beginning, the starter-upper engineer, while now Datalogic boasts 2800 employees, 55% of whom are located in Europe, 20% in America and the rest in Asia (a considerable figure, as there is a leading production site in Vietnam). Then there is also the skill of over 500 engineers. Our clients include the largest companies in the world, 40% of the 500 that appear on Fortune's list of the largest companies. Our evolution has led us to being quoted in the Star segment of the Milan stock exchange in 2001.

The new identification valley
For us, the market we currently work in is the identification valley. A unique and innovative sector linked to identification. Today, Datalogic’s main competitors when it comes to bar-code readers are American,” stresses Volta. Datalogic is part of this context in motion - a company specialized in the design and manufacturing of bar-code readers, RFID, detection and measuring sensors and other electronic devices. There are fixed retail, hand-held and industrial scanners used by stores, factories, airports, logistic centres, manufacturers and hospitals. This is how we recovered after last year's situation characterized by the pandemic: we registered a turnover of €300 million during the first six months of 2021, with a growth of 31% at constant exchange rates, with an EBITDA of €47 million on a turnover of 16% and a net profit of €23.5 million. Then there are order trends which, with a double-digit growth, have gone back to the levels of 2019. An innovative and technological company. Nowadays, Datalogic boasts over 1200 patents which are part of the equity and have a huge value because they constitute competitive advantages and are fruit of the invention of 500 engineers committed to R&D all over the world, in both the two facilities in Bologna as well as in the two US facilities in Oregon and Pennsylvania. In 2016, we invested 9% in R&D, while now we have reached 10-12% of the turnover. Because knowledge is still a value. Research is everything, innovation is key. Our clients are always expecting the latest innovation, and pleasing them is our objective. We have an indicator that measures their satisfaction and the quality of our offer in technical terms. I am talking about the Net Promoter Score, a measuring system that enables us to always listen to clients. After all, the future is a journey that we face together,” highlights Volta.

From Bologna to the whole world.
The headquarters are located in Lippo di Calderara di Reno near Bologna, but the production facilities and repair centres are to be found in Italy, US, Hungary, Slovakia and Vietnam. So - with roots firmly planted in Emilia, and a capability of conquering the markets with a successful glocal recipe. The secret is thinking big. In the US, we have acquired a significant presence focusing on acquisition and people growth, which has brought about ideas, values and cultures. Nowadays, almost half of our workforce is located outside Europe. We are a single large company that includes our headquarters as well as all the foreign branches.” What about the future? In Valentina Volta’s view, the future always depends on clients. We need to consider them as compasses to understand the direction we need to take. We high-tech companies are often too focused on our technology, but technology is not an end in itself, but must rather be developed based on clients’ needs. The solutions, even if protected by patents, can be copied, but people remain the most important value. Unlike the past, we now think more and more about how to develop our talents, offering them opportunities for growth and promoting sustainability within our group. Just like in the past, people make the difference,” stresses Volta. Clients’ needs change: while readers were once needed to scan bar-codes, now there are more advanced solutions, such as the artificial intelligence introduced into supermarket check-outs to identify the products in the shopping cart. We are now working on the next generation of readers featuring innovative solutions that can provide product recognition via vision systems. What is more, the new readers and mobile computers can be charged wirelessly. For mobile computers, which are like smartphones and use the Android operating systems, we have made an agreement with Google,” explains Volta. Just like that pioneering and visionary bar-code invented fifty years ago, the future must be decoded together.

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