Tens of thousands of engineers and technical managers from across Europe gathered in Northern Italy last month for a series of events loosely termed Technology Exhibition week. These included Fluidtrans Compomac (fluid power), Mechanical Power Transmission and Motion Control, Plast (plastics and plastics-processing machinery), Xylexpo (woodworking machinery) — all held in Milan — and Lamiera (metal-forming equipment), held in Bologna.
Widespread interest in Italian components, machines, and technology belies the country’s current economic conditions. It’s no secret that Italy is caught up in the European financial crisis and in a recession, with 2012 first quarter GDP declining 0.8%.
Yet many Italy-based companies continue to prosper in spite of the downturn. Consider data from Federmacchine, the federation of Italian machinery associations, based in Milan. Its members manufacture everything from machine tools, packaging equipment, and plastics injectionmolding machines to hydraulic and pneumatic components, robots, and automation equipment. Last year, production for the sector rose 13.2% and exports were up 15.8%. Italy accounts for 18% of the European Union’s machinery production, second only to Germany.
Why the ongoing success despite general hard times? Giancarlo Losma, President of Federmacchine, cites several reasons, and they basically revolve around performance, customization, and after-sales support.
First, successful Italian manufacturers make machines of the highest quality and take advantage of the latest technological innovations, says Losma. Productivity and reliability need to be second-to-none. And because the average manufacturer is fairly small by U.S. standards, with only about 60 to 70 employees, this lets them focus on problem solving and gives them the flexibility to customize and personalize the end product to exactly match customer requirements.
“Italians are the champions of special machines,” says Luigi Galdabini, Vice President of UCIMU, the Italian machine-tool association. “We are innovative and competitive, and we are artists, a little bit. Who is solving problems? It is the Italians.”
He notes that OEMs from around the world don’t look to Italian manufacturers for a cheap price on conventional, run-of themill equipment. “We will always get beat by China and India in terms of costs, with simple machines. Our aim is to be tops in performance, quality, and innovation,” Galdabini says.
The expertise of Italian entrepreneurs lies in overcoming technical hurdles, crafting unique designs, and wringing out more efficiency, speed, precision, and productivity from a machine. Some manufacturers might invest thousands of engineering hours yet only produce a single — albeit extremely complex — machine a year, he adds.
Galdabini sees investment in R&D as critical, but notes most research by companies is done hand-in-hand with the customer as a project progresses, creating applied solutions to specific problems. It’s the life blood of most firms, which on average count 35% of their employees as engineers, technicians, designers, or software developers. “We typically turn to outside experts for specialty research, for example in measurement systems or optics,” he says.
Sustainability and energy efficiency are growing in importance, particularly in markets such as Germany and Switzerland and, to a certain extent, the U. S. But increasing efficiency can raise the price of a machine, he cautions, which often makes the sale more difficult. The goal is to raise efficiency and substantially lower energy and operating costs — ensuring a practical, long-term investment.
The firms also stress training and support after the sale, building long-term relationships, says Losma. “Customers need to understand we’re in for the long term.” All these factors give Italian manufacturers a leg up in global markets, according to Losma. Despite the companies’ relatively small size, they have structured their internal operations to focus on, and sell their products, in foreign markets.
Last year the Italian machinery sector exported 70% of its production. In some segments it was even higher, for instance about 80% of textile machines were shipped abroad last year. For many Italian manufacturers, Germany is the number-one customer, while machinery exports to the U. S. were up about 35% last year, according to Federmacchine.
Another strength, notes Losma, is many of these companies are multi-generational, family-owned operations with their livelihood on the line. “The way to survive is invest in technology, innovation, and internationalization,” he says. “Export-oriented companies that have invested over the last five years are still growing despite the poor domestic market.”
Case in point is Saes Getters, a medium-size manufacturer headquartered in Lainate. The company manufactures a range of what can be considered “high-tech” products such as ultrahigh vacuum systems for semiconductor manufacturing, organic LED displays, and medical devices. It invests 11 to 12% of earnings on R&D and 98% of its sales are outside Italy, according to Managing Director Giulio Canale.
By leveraging its expertise in special metallurgy and high-volume manufacturing, coupled with ongoing research, it has developed a diverse portfolio of shape memory alloy (SMA) semifinished shapes and components for the industrial and biomedical markets.
These superelastic “smart” materials, based on Nitinol (Ni-Ti alloy), return to a predetermined shape when heated and can be effectively packaged into compact, light, powerful, and silent actuators to replace piezo materials and electric motors. They’re inexpensive, produce direct linear or angular movement with no EMI, and tolerate harsh environments. Actuator wires, for example, have a maximum stroke of 5.5%, force at 150 MPa loads as high as 3,000gm, and life exceeding 200,000 cycles at 150 MPa and 3.5% stroke.
The company’s production equipment converts ingots to wire as small as 19 μm in diameter, with exacting repeatability for high-volume applications. Other products include ribbons, strips, thin sheets, and springs.
Typical uses include small actuators, fire-protection equipment, safety valves, and vibration-control devices, as well as surgical tools and medical implants. One potentially lucrative application on the drawing board is an image-stabilization SMA actuator for handheld digital cameras. The extremely small devices would mount inside a camera and compensate for shaky hands to ensure stable, well-focused images and video. It competes with software and piezo solutions. The device is perhaps a year from release, but potential sales could range in the hundreds of millions per year, says Canale.
Cariboni, based in Ronco Briantino, is a 28-year-old, familyowned company with fewer than 20 employees. It is recognized as a world leader in ultralight hydraulics for sailing and racing yachts, and counts among its customers leading teams from America’s Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race.
An innovation award winner at Fluidtrans, Cariboni showcased a design that slashes the weight of a traditional hydraulic system without hurting performance. Key aspects include cylinders made of titanium and carbon-fiber composite, with titanium fittings, for controlling the sails, steering, and other onboard operations.
Three hydraulic pumps are made of aluminum. One axialpiston unit running at 300 bar (4,400 psi) is for propulsion and a second, rated to 350 bar (5,150 psi), “operates what we call low-pressure systems, such as winches,” explains company spokeswoman Paola Cariboni. A high-pressure, rotary-piston pump, at 700 bar (10,300 psi), is for the cylinders that control sails, steering, and handling. Linear-position sensors inside the cylinders permit PLC control.
“There’s a huge difference replacing steel with aluminum. And the higher the pressure, the smaller and lighter all the components,” note Cariboni. “Compared to conventional industrial hydraulics, our system weighs 50% less.”
Other weight-saving techniques include arranging pumps in a decentralized circuit to minimize the length of hoses to the cylinders; using tanks of plastic, fiberglass, or carbon fiber, depending on the pressure; and making mounts, flanges, and manifolds from aluminum or other lightweight materials.
Reliability cannot be compromised, stresses Cariboni, so a lot of engineering work is needed to minimize the weight and maintain the structural integrity and durability of the parts. The company’s engineers walk a fine line in building ultralight, high-performance components that don’t compromise reliability, she emphasizes, and no detail is insignificant. “Gram by gram, you reduce by kilos the weight of the boat,” says Cariboni.