SECO: Journey into the Beating Heart of the Electronics Revolution
We’re in a garage in the 1970s and two guys are in the process of inventing the future. No, we’re not talking about Apple of Jobs and Wozniak: this garage isn’t in California but in Arezzo, in Italy, and the two guys are Daniele Conti and Luciano Secciani.
Growing up elbow-to-elbow at the desks of the local technical school, ever since they were children Luciano and Daniele have shared an incredible passion for electronics and an enterpreneurial spirit. But the revelation only came during their high-school years, when, to make ends meet, they created an electronic starter kit for cars and sell it to a local mechanic. Immediately they both realized that there’s a market for electronic solutions, and that their passion for circuitry could be much more than a hobby: it could become a business. And so it is that in April 1979, as in the most classic innovation stories, two guys bound by the passion for electronics rent out a garage and establish their creative breeding ground: the SECO electronics laboratory.
But getting started is extremely hard. This might be the Arezzo of the economic boom, but this pair of start-uppers has very little capital available to them: Daniele and Luciano are little more than teenagers and their business only survives thanks to their parents’ financial help. What’s more, the market is still in its beginnings and the direction to take isn’t at all clear – in other words, what to produce and, most importantly, for whom. Daniele and Luciano spend their days creating and experimenting, and expenses mount. Confusion, doubts, fears. Until one day, when a lightbulb goes on: “The gold-working sector is quickly expanding,” they realize, “we could build small systems for the producers of goldsmiths’ machines.” No sooner said than done, and this is the turning point: demand far exceeds their expectations, and with the revenues they immediately shift to the production of generators for galvanic tanks and piece counters for gold and silver assembly machines. But Daniele and Luciano don’t want to limit themselves to this sector, and shortly after they decide to extend their expertise to applications in the gaming and transportation sectors as well.
10 years go by and SECO becomes an established contractor in the electronics sector. And that’s when a new turning point occurs: the computer. Daniele and Luciano fall in love with the first personal computers that arrive from overseas, and cultivate the dream of creating one with the SECO trademark. They don’t waste too much time thinking things over, and set right to it: in no time they design and produce a personal computer, the SECO SYSTEM 210, and present it at the SMAU, Italy’s most important technology trade show. It’s 1989 and the SECO PC gets nominated for the “Best Design” award among the year’s most innovative projects. In the same year SECO launches the SECO SYSTEM 210 on the market.
But was there truly space for an Italian personal computer? Apple already disposed of massive financial resources and had several competitors. Going head over heels down the “Made in Italy” PC road, as suggestive as it might be, would have brought the company into extremely competitive territory against adversaries in a different category altogether, and SECO, as much as it was growing, could afford to do this. But most importantly, in the two founders’ vision, SECO needed to continue to seek out unexplored territories and look for new markets in which to distinguish itself. To use the words of Apple itself, “think different”: better to be different than try to be better. And SECO wanted to be truly unique.
This obviously did not mean setting aside the computer universe forever to concentrate solely on electronics. In the eyes of the two talented young men, it was immediately clear that the worlds of electronics and computers were bound to merge. Indeed, the key was study the way of transferring the experience gained with PCs into the industrial context, SECO’s core business. But how? Daniele and Luciano’s idea was to create a machine for industrial design, but based on PC architecture: in other words, to bring the two worlds together. The year is 1989, and 10 years after the company’s foundation, SECO produces the world’s first Eurocard-format industrial PC.
Not a PC in the sense that we understand it: we’re talking about a headless computer, meaning without a monitor. Today these PCs are continually in our daily lives, even if we don’t pay attention to them because they deal with a level of automation to which we’ve now grown accustomed. They manage the information panels with which we interact at the airport and the ATMs where we get our cash, they move the bar at the toll road booth and oversee numerically-controlled machines: they’re everywhere. And soon, so are SECO’s products, finding applications in the fields of biomedicine (ultrasound machines, CAT-scan machines, dialysis, etc.), fitness (smart gym equipment, meaning that they’re connected to the Internet and capable of registering and visualizing data in real time, and then processing them to offer new services), the automotive industry, robotics, aerospace, and many other sectors. To give a concrete example, SECO industrial PCs were implemented in the Moscow subway system to provide passengers with information and publicity services.
And so that first industrial PC from back in 1989 became the first in a nearly endless series. In 1999 SECO presents Ellipse, a sort of tablet ahead of its time, as well as the company’s first “all-in-one”-model touch PC, designed to develop, create and test out product prototypes.
In 2008 SECO, Congatec and MSC found the Qseven Consortium and the new embedded standard Qseven, used today throughout the world.
In 2012 SECO is a founding member of SGET (Standardization Group for Embedded Technologies).
In 2013 SECO, along with interaction design start-up AIDILAB, designs and creates the single-board computer with open-source hardware UDOO, intended not for the industrial sector like other SECO products but for “makers,” the so-called digital artisans. UDOO is the first of a series of highly-successful PCs for makers, and today is used throughout the world.
SECO PCs are therefore the intelligent brain of machines, or better, their soul. They let the machine live, see and speak – not in the poetic sense, but literally: thanks to modules and sensors embedded in a machine, it’s possible to equip it with eyes, ears and intelligence, as well as other senses that not even we humans have. Today automation no longer amazes us, but very soon we’ll have to get used to smart automation. Thanks to new technologies such as edge computing, the Internet of Things, and neural networks, it’s already possible to build cyber-physical systems connected to the Internet capable of digitalising data from the physical world and producing a reaction in it. To put into simpler words, cars that drive themselves – and much more: there are countless other scenarios and applicatory contexts, like Industry 4.0, or “smart” industry. On that front SECO has been on the front line since 2015 with the project AXIOM, financed by the European Commission in the framework of the H2020 development program with over €3.9 million – a research project with the goal of designing and producing the ideal module for the creation of cyber-physical systems.
Thus that creative vision of industrial electronics of the early 1980s has turned out to be profoundly far-sighted, and has led SECO to become a company of reference in the embedded electronics and IoT sectors, and increasingly oriented toward cutting-edge technology – but without ceasing to stand out. Indeed, unlike many companies that with globalisation have sought out easy ways to cut costs by offshoring production, SECO has kept its production in-house, at its own headquarters, in Italy. A winning decision because it has allowed SECO to reinforce its own specialties, bring in new ones from the outside, and, finally, maintain the utmost control over the final product, ensuring its customers reliable production schedules, prompt action in case of modifications, and above-standard quality, transforming research and innovation into the company’s beating heart.
From that garage in Arezzo everything has changed – and yet nothing really has.