A spate of new industry groupings or clusters is adding to the muscle and competitiveness of Italy's small and medium-sized manufacturers
Italy's aerospace industry is scattered, with national champion Finmeccanica's headquarters in Rome and its subsidiaries dotted the length of the peninsula. But Naples and Turin, regions that are home to scores of family-run aerospace businesses, vie for the right to be known as the birthplace of Italian aerospace.
In and around Turin these large numbers of small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) are increasingly pooling resources, forming small "clusters" of companies to better position themselves in the European and even global aerospace market and to supplement local and regional governments initiatives to support and promote them at home and abroad.
Turin-based Euren specialises in gear manufacture and prototypes. Customers include Avio and Piaggio
Turin's history means its aerospace industry has grown up differently from those in other places. The region owes much of its engineering expertise to the presence since the dawn of the 20th century of Turin's most famous name - and Italy's industrial champion - car manufacturer Fiat. And Fiat's legacy is still deeply embedded in the industrial landscape of Turin and the surrounding Piedmont region, which nestles in the shelter of the Alps in the north-western corner of Italy. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, Turin lays claim to being the only Italian region with involvement in both aeronautical and space manufacturing, as well as the only region with capabilities ranging from design to production of an aircraft, thanks to the presence of Alenia Aeronautica.
A variety of factors has led to the recent rejuvenation of Turin and the wider Piedmont region's aerospace industry. Not least is the crisis that Fiat suffered in the 1990s, when a significant number of the skilled workers in the region made the leap from automotives to aircraft.
In common with other northern Italian regions, there is a high concentration of small, family-run businesses in Piedmont, so initiatives run by regional and local authorities, along with the private clusters growing up, are important in guaranteeing the success of players that lack the clout of their larger partners and customers.
Piedmont is home to 266 companies in the aerospace and defence sector - of around 400 in the country as a whole - of which 97 focus on aeronautics, 63 on space and 106 are involved in both. The region's aerospace industry provides around 10,000 jobs and creates an annual turnover of around €1.6 billion ($2 billion).
A major advantage for the region's high-tech businesses is Turin's technical university, the Politecnico di Torino, which produces qualified engineers, designers and research specialists and accounts at least in part for the presence in the region of some of the big names in Italian aerospace - Alenia Aeronautica, Alcatel Alenia Space, Avio, Galileo Avionica and Microtecnica. This large academic presence also benefits small companies that need to keep abreast of emerging technologies: and the companies themselves have recognised the importance of linking with public bodies - around two-thirds of Piedmont's aerospace companies have relationships with research centres and universities.
Local and regional authorities are doing their bit to encourage the aerospace industry in the region. Gianpiero Masera, director of territory promotion and development at the Turin Chamber of Commerce, says: "Much of our activity is to increase the international commercial reach of these companies." To this end, the chamber's foreign department seeks to promote links between local Italian industry and overseas institutions help SMEs get the most out of exhibiting at air shows and exhibitions provide training and information and allow them to foster links with their overseas counterparts. The organisation is hoping to formalise links with the UK's Midlands Aerospace Alliance (MAA) early next year.
Local and regional associations and Turin's Chamber of Commerce have also formed a committee to promote the candidature of Piedmont as an officially recognised aerospace cluster along the lines of the Aerospace Valley in south-west France. The committee, which includes representatives from local and national aerospace and engineering associations, Finmeccanica subsidiaries, academic institutions and unions, is preparing a dossier to present to the Italian government proposing that the group of businesses and institutions based around Turin should be officially recognised as an aerospace cluster, and therefore eligible for any funding that is made available by the Italian government.
At a European level, Turin's Chamber of Commerce met last month in Brussels with representatives of its Parisian counterpart and the Stuttgart region to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) and set out a joint work programme for 2007, with the aim of strengthening aerospace SMEs and giving them the chance to work together on EU programmes and international projects.
As business conditions become ever more competitive, it is increasingly important for firms to look abroad for more opportunities. A proportion of Piedmont's aerospace companies have recognised this need, but there is still a way to go before they are all making the most of international markets. France is the current major foreign market for the region's aerospace companies, with 77.4% of companies doing business there. Germany and Switzerland come a close second and third, with 64.5% and 54.8% respectively. But there is room for growth - just 19.4% of companies have won work in the USA.
In the meantime, it is the entrepreneurial spirit that sees hundreds of family-run businesses thriving in this sector. It is also the driving force behind the setting up of several privately run aerospace "clusters", which share the aim of expanding the market share of their member companies, providing them with visibility in a global market, and allowing customers to deal efficiently with a single entity to increase SMEs' chances of winning large orders from major manufacturers.
The first three clusters, ITC, NADIA and PMA, are at different stages of development, but others will surely follow as aerospace SMEs become increasingly aware of the need to co-operate to win overseas business.
Source: Flight International