A visit to the Arduino factories

A visit to the production facilities of the Arduino platform — in the same hills that gave birth to Olivetti — reveals how a genuine and innovative "made in Italy" product is rendered possible by exploring old and new business models.

 

Design / Alice Mela

In 2005, a group of programmers and teachers at Ivrea's Interaction Design Institute developed the Arduino platform in order to create a small and inexpensive tool that would help students "prototype interactions." That same year, the Interaction Design Institute closed as the result of a (short-sighted) decision by Telecom, which was its lead investor at the time.

Since then, Arduino has travelled around the world, radically changing the way many designers approach their work and inviting "amateurs" to enter the world of electronics and programming. It is now commonplace to see students building working prototypes and "geeks" monitoring the humidity of their own homes, something that would not have been possible without the advent of this microprocessor and its support community. Today, all sorts of materials can be found online: from video tutorials, to pieces of existing code, all the way to technical drawings for printed circuit boards.

Arduino sparks interest not only because of its widespread use, but also because of its legal and commercial premises. As far as the legal aspects are concerned, it must be recalled that the both the software and the hardware projects were open source initiatives. The design team decided to protect only the brand, while covering the documentation with a creative commons licence so that the community of designers, makers, artists, and the just plain curious would be able to create new knowledge using the platform which, from the commercial standpoint, is an outstanding example of the potential of Italian industry.

Top: The same facilities that print the Arduino circuit boards also print circuits for other companies. Above: Some of the components are still assembled manually, even if the company is now slowly mechanizing the packaging process

This is why I decided to visit the production facilities. The entire manufacturing process (except for certain purchased components) takes place in and around Strambino, Ivrea, in a context dominated by the small- and medium-sized companies that are typical of Italian industrial districts and of the "Made in Italy" phenomenon itself.

Ivrea's history is another interesting part of the picture. The city was intimately tied to the presence of Olivetti, a company with a legacy of incredible electronics know-how, and an entire generation of experts. In fact, the Interaction Design Institute was established in a former Olivetti building randomly covered with blue tiles — just like the Arduino boards. The company still exists as a brand, but it is no longer involved in design and development. If Olivetti had not been there before, maybe Arduino would not exist today.

The circuits are printed in System Elettronica, up to when the boards are trimmed, prepared and moved to another factory where the electronics components are assembled

In the foothills of the Graeae Apls, one of the project's co-founders Gianluca Martino guides us through the various facilities, starting with Smart Projects, a company he helped establish that is involved in the creation and design of the well-known blue microprocessors. Martino explains that Arduino does not produce anything under that name but is supported by a series of outside companies that have the necessary skills to absorb the brand's manufacturing needs. So it's not surprising to find that some of the components are assembled by the same company that produces the circuits for headlights of well-known German cars.

After a brief introduction, we are taken a few kilometres away to System Elettronica, where the circuits are printed. The company's proud owner, Ludovico Apruzzese, greets us and takes us on the grand tour. The company is small but well organized. All the machines are made exclusively in Italy, as are the products and the interiors — painted in the red-white-and-green of the Italian flag. Apruzzese is keen to stress the importance that design played in Arduino's success. For the first time, a microprocessor became an independent product instead of something to hide away in a box. The color choice, the design, the graphics, and the packaging — by Turin-based Todo — helped create a highly recognizable icon.

 
The Italian approach is exactly what makes Arduino special. It shows that a genuine and innovative “made in Italy” product is still possible by exploring old and new business models
 

After a photoengraving process, the copper plates are transformed in several phases and multiple chemical baths that terminate with a welding mask used to apply the famous blue colour and the board's distinctive silkscreened logo

During the tour, our guide explains the manufacturing process in detail. It begins with a CNC router that perforates the copper plates. After a photoengraving process, the plates are transformed in several phases and multiple chemical baths that terminate with a welding mask used to apply the famous blue colour and the board's distinctive silkscreened logo, which is equally important for Arduino's image.

Following the application of a protective layer of tin, a robot then controls all traces of copper in a testing phase. Finally, the boards are trimmed, prepared and moved to another factory where the electronics components are assembled.

Once finished, the boards ready for re-testing

The boards are then returned to their starting point at Smart Projects, where they are manually tested and packaged — even if the company is now slowly mechanizing the packaging process, a procedure that will soon be introduced to the assembly line. At this point, 1% of boards malfunction. Another 0.5% of malfunctions are user-reported. At the moment, Arduino produces about 5,000 pieces per day, with the highest sales in the USA, followed by the United Kingdom and Germany. The product's high quality has given Arduino its international reputation, which has, in turn, led other manufacturers to include the hardware in their products (this collaboration is possible only with small producers and partners who share the Arduino philosophy, our guide explains).

The Arduino boards constitute the "brain" of many other machines, such as some 3D printers

Gianluca Martino reminds us that Arduino was more successful abroad than in Italy, where it has become famous only in the past two years. There are many reasons for this — from the language barrier of the English-speaking online community, to the complete documentation in English, to a general Italian reluctance to use "made in Italy" technology and open source platforms.

However, the Italian approach is exactly what makes Arduino special. It shows that a genuine and innovative "made in Italy" product is still possible by exploring old and new business models — like open source platforms and small- and medium-sized companies — and investing in research, rather than in worn stereotypes. Alice Mela