Originally published in La Stampa, June 14, 2018
A bit of the Apple MacBook magic was made in Italy
–by Bruno Ruffilli
With the App economy, Apple generates nearly 1.6 million jobs in Europe. Last year, it paid more than 10 billion euros to its 4,300 EU suppliers. Here is the story of one of Apple’s 261 Italian suppliers, Laboratorio Elettrofisico.
Apple has been operating in Europe since 1980, when it opened a production plant with 60 employees in Cork, Ireland; today there are more than 22,000 Apple employees in 19 EU countries. The numbers reported by Apple show how Apple’s success has also had a beneficial impact in Europe. There is the App market, with about 20 million euros paid to developers in ten years and the nearly 1.6 million jobs which are part of the App Store ecosystem. And there is, as well, the Analysis Group research to which Apple contributed, helping to create another 170,000 jobs, thanks to its relationship with the more than 4,300 Apple suppliers in the EU (who last year received orders totaling more than 10 billion euros). In Italy, Apple has 1624 employees and 16 retail stores; it opens its seventeenth store, in Piazza Liberty in Milan.
Italy has the fifth largest economy of iOS apps which supports 62,000 jobs connected to the App Store ecosystem, of which 25,000 jobs are in Milan alone. In 2016, Apple opened the first iOS Developer Academy in partnership with Federico II University in Naples, to give students from all over the world the opportunity to learn the practical skills and to receive the specific training in app development and entrepreneurship the App economy requires.
From Italy to the world
Those who have been using MacBook for a long time will remember that, to guarantee its perfect closure, there used to be a hide-away mechanical hook, later replaced by a magnetic system. The current MacBook has this magical feature: it always closes perfectly, and above all there is no mechanical element which could break or eventually lose its original mechanical properties. And this magic is possible thanks to a device designed and manufactured by an Italian company, Laboratorio Elettrofisico, which specializes in the design, development and production of instrumentation for the most precise magnetic measurement in the world. Founded in 1959, it is located in Nerviano, in the province of Milan. “In Italy, we have design and engineering departments, and we produce all the machines that we export. We also have a headquarters in Silicon Valley, twenty minutes from Cupertino, specifically to assist Apple,” explains Dario Zanon, the company’s CEO. “We also have a location in Michigan, and very importantly we have supply and support services in Shanghai. So, we can manage not only our production and services for Apple, but also for all our other clients who operate in China.” These clients include Foxconn, Siemens, Rolls Royce, and General Electric. In all, Laboratorio Elettrofisico has two thousand clients, in 50 countries. “Thanks to Apple we have more visibility and new customers every week,” notes Zanon.
The Italian company produces equipment to magnetize metals; it also produces control instruments and automated systems. For those who are not familiar with it, the means by which Apple laptops close is quite interesting: the metal element is activated after it is already installed; then each computer is subjected to a magnetic intensity measurement to ensure that the closure is not too slow or too resistant. “We also do this [magnetic calibration] with motors,” explains Zanon, “like the motors in elevators, which measure two and a half feet in diameter, or like the motors in Swatch watches, which are just one and a half millimeters.”
Laboratorio Elettrofisico’s revenue has grown from 2 million euros in 2012 to around 11 million euros today: “Apple completely changed us as a company: our staff has tripled and today we have about 80 people, twice the amount of space, but above all our work process has changed and how we think has evolved.” How did the collaboration with Apple start? “In 2013, we met people from the American company at a seminar and took the opportunity to introduce ourselves and to tell them what we do,” recalls Zanon. “For years Apple has been using magnets in its products–it was a passion of Steve Jobs, but their needs imposed the highest of standards.” From Cupertino, new challenges come constantly; in Nerviano, their solutions are sought: “We have to develop our own ideas; there are no specifications as there usually are for other companies.”
Laboratorio Elettrofisico is one Apple’s many Italian suppliers, and perhaps the one that best represents the strengths of the small-to-medium size businesses in Italy, answering in a highly specialized and efficient manner to a very specific need. It reminds one of the many companies in nearby Brianza, where there is a tradition of diligence and attention to detail, but also the ability to innovate solutions that continue to produce growth in the furniture industry, the design industry, and in others. And in the future? “We have other projects in collaboration with Apple; many of their products utilize magnets, and Cupertino wants them to work in the best way possible.”