Leonardo’s 75th anniversary and the common thread of technological evolution in Italian industry

18 March 2023

Leonardo, at that time Finmeccanica, was established as Italy’s holding company for the mechanical and shipbuilding industry on 18 March 1948, and has since evolved into a world leader in Aerospace, Defence and Security. A recently published book tells the story of a company that has accompanied Italy’s development and modernisation right from the start.

Seventy-five years of history of the Italian aerospace, defence and security industry, and of its markets, technologies and people. Seventy-five years of economic, social and cultural development in our country and the communities served. Because the history of Leonardo, established on 18 March 1948 under the name Finmeccanica, is the common thread running through the evolution of Italy’s manufacturing industry since the end of the Second World War. An original key to interpretation of these three quarters of a century of history is offered in the volume “Leonardo. Motore industriale e frontiera tecnologica dell’Italia”, (“Leonardo: Italy’s industrial engine and technological frontier”), written by Il Sole 24 Ore correspondent Paolo Bricco and published by il Mulino.

As Bricco states in the new book, “Leonardo is an expression of its age, of the age of globalisation and hypertechnological capitalism, as well as of the age of Italy, making an essential contribution to the physiology of the country’s industry”. Five key moments from the company’s 75-year history all share the same constant: the presence of strategic technologies for the industrial development of Italy and its partner nations. The first moment, in 1948, coincided with the country’s beginnings in the thermoelectric and mechanical industry and in shipbuilding, driven by Italy’s Institute for Industrial Reconstruction (IRI) and leading the way in the country’s post-war reconstruction.


The launch of the transatlantic liner REX. Ansaldo Shipyards, Genoa, 1931

Then, between the sixties and the eighties, came a focus on the aerospace industry and the emerging electronics industry on the one hand, and on the other, on the mass market for automobiles following the separation of the shipbuilding industry. The late nineties and the early years of the new millennium saw the consolidation of the Aerospace, Defence and Security industries in Italy, marked after the year 2005 by international expansion, in the United Kingdom, the United States and Poland. Since the end of 2013, this has been followed by rationalisation of assets and reorganisation into One Company to meet the requirements of competitiveness and investment capacity – essential factors for concentrating on innovative lines of business and technological cycles.

And so we come to the current phase of convergence between industry and digital technology, which presupposes the ability to gather data from multiple sources, such as geoinformation, managing it with cloud-based supercomputing tools (such as the davinci-1 HPC), artificial intelligence and cyber security to come up with closely interconnected, integrated, multi-domain systems. “A model of industry characterised by very significant investment in R&D and open innovation,” notes Bricco, “by technological incubators – the eleven Leonardo Labs – and by digital twin solutions whose detailed modelling of a real element permits prediction, in a virtual environment, of the most widely varying scenarios of use, from engineering through to operations”.

As Bricco notes, 75 years after its birth, Leonardo represents an essential part of the country’s technology and manufacturing system. Italy is experiencing growing marginalisation: we no longer represent the hinge between east and west, as we were when the west meant democracy and the east stood for communism; we no longer have Europe’s biggest communist party; and we are no longer the hinge between the north and south, in the heart of the Mediterranean”. Despite this, the company “is an integral part of the global manufacturing scene of great geopolitical stature. And so it contributes systematically to the nature and positioning of the country. The fact that Italy remains connected to the leading western democracies is partly due to its last great industrial groups.” The journalist notes that “Leonardo is on the frontiers of technology. And this means that Italy is, too. In an international scenario that has seen significant changes, Italy is going through the great crisis of the automotive industry, information technology and chemicals. This is a historic transition that risks breaking up the country’s productive structure”.

From this point of view, Leonardo constitutes “a very important stabilising factor. Its factories, laboratories and research centres – active in a great variety of fields, pushing ahead the technological frontiers of our times – become vital ganglia that are even more essential for our country’s economic, manufacturing, scientific and cultural physiology. In an economy distinguished by a quantitative prevalence of small to mid-sized enterprises and a cultural heritage that makes the most of their advantages and virtues, Italy’s large-scale enterprises are being taken apart.” But Bricco concludes that “This is not the case of Finmeccanica and Leonardo”.