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FARE INSIEME - Ep. 53 - Grafos Steel, pioneers of the touch-screen revolution

«I’ll tell you how we anticipated the times by rethinking the man-machine relationship»


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Over twenty years ago, an intuition in Formigine (Modena) enables the creation of a business focused on touch-screen machines. Today, the company - a leader in the production of stainless steel and aluminium industrial keyboards, number pads, panels and metal frames for touch-screen monitors - boasts a turnover of €9.5 million with one third of the sales made abroad. For FARE INSIEME, Giampaolo Colletti interviewed Roberto Gatti, CEO of Grafos Steel.

di Giampaolo Colletti

Photocredit: Giacomo Maestri e Francesca Aufiero

It’s easy to talk about touch screens in a world that is already connected to systems controlled with the touch of fingers on a screen, first and foremost smartphones. It was a much more complex thing to think and implement over twenty years ago. Yet, in the Modena area there is a company that, before all others, sensed a certain way of considering the relationship between man and machines. A company that acted as a pioneer anticipating the times and becoming a leader precisely when it came to that touch-screencomponent. We are talking about Grafos Steel, an Italian excellence in the production of stainless steel and aluminium industrial keyboards, number pads, panels and metal frames for touch-screen monitors and embedded systems. Technical skill and state-of-the-art equipment guarantee the control of production processes, from mechanical processing to printing. The production ranges from simple engraved plates and front panels to more complicated solutions featuring buttons and interface ports. Applications range from automation to payment and control systems.  

Ideas that make the difference.
The idea of tackling a titanic challenge came in 2001 - anticipating the future by focusing on quality without compromises. All done with a simple yet complex recipe: quite a few technical skills, hi-tech devices and an essential component, i.e. a qualified, curious and brave human capital. Today, the company boasts 93 employees and a turnover of €9.5 million in 2021, expected to reach €12 million in 2022. 35% of the market is abroad, yet there is the question of the availability of raw materials and components. “The market has been fluctuating for quite a while. Our business focuses on steel keyboards where there are very few producers. We sell over 150 thousand of them a year”, explains Roberto Gatti, CEO of Grafos Steel. This entrepreneur had his winning intuition when he was 23. Now that he is 62, only too well does he remember that bet placed and won forty years earlier with a mix of audacity and recklessness. “At the time, we started making screen printing films, then we moved on to keyboards with a considerable investment in mechanics. We started working on man-machine interfaces immediately,” recalls Gatti. And he tells this story as if it is something obvious, something very simple to achieve. “I have done all this with my team, with a lot of experiments and that required capability of putting ourselves in the shoes of users, of listening to market needs,” stresses Gatti. The keyboards are made with a patented technology and the solutions are always heavily customised. It’s as if a varied colour palette was available. “Each option has specific characteristics that depend on the interface model, number of buttons, type of assembly or more particular details such as the backlight, screen printing and various marks. This way, clients have what they want in a short time and without the additional costs of customised plants,” says Gatti.  

Towards the future.
So today the capital of touch-screen innovation is his company, with a production space covering over one thousand square metres. The company is located in Fromigine, a town of almost 35thousand people ten kilometres from Modena, in that area known all over the world for its hi-tech district. Standard keyboards are similar to the digital ones that appear at the petrol station: it is a hi-tech system which is however very user-friendly and can be picked-up immediately. The success of this mechatronic reality is that something functional and attractive is produced, i.e. technology that is both useful and attractive. “These mechanics are aesthetic as well as precise: steel keyboards are on their way out.  Capacitive glass made in clean rooms that eliminate dust particles with clear conductive varnishes are currently very popular. It's an evolution of touch-screens that involves industry 4.0 interconnected via data and connected to production,” explains Gatti. Right, production. The Ubersetto facility, a small town with 300 inhabitants in the Fiorano Modenese municipality will become over the next few months a 4.0 factory covering three thousand square metres where orders will be managed according to hi-tech standards. Production, yet with a lot of research and development. Grafos Steel has also increased its investments in R&D, equipping itself with state-of-the-art technologies especially to process steel and aluminium as well as with a screen printing line and a Clean Room. This is where the new products are born and brought to the attention of markets all over the world. Once again, there is only one thing that is imperative for Gatti and his team. Anticipating the future. And, of course, improving it.

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