The region around Turin - the workshop of Italy - is the latest to promote itself to the global industry as a one-stop aerospace cluster
You do not have to search far to find a small or medium-size enterprise in the north-west industrial heartland of Italy. Despite the dominance of manufacturing heavies such as Alenia and Fiat, the area is full of family-run firms that sometimes for generations have been making a living as subcontractors to these big names.
But times are changing, and not just in Italy. The globalisation of the aerospace and automotive sectors has led to pressures on small built-to-print shops. As they become less vertically-integrated, original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs, are shaving their supplier base to a hardcore of partners able to add value by delivering an engineered "solution" rather than simply a component to order. At the same time, they are looking beyond their backyard. For many SMEs, routine manufacturing for a local customer is no longer an option.
It is for this reason that the region around Italy's main industrial city, Turin, has become the latest to promote its aerospace sector as a cluster of excellence, able to provide tailored engineering packages to global customers. As part of a three-year project led by the Turin chamber of commerce and local authorities, a new organisation - Torino Piemonte Aerospace - has been set up to represent 65 local companies. These are mostly SMEs, but also include its five big aerospace players: the Finmeccanica subsidiaries Alenia Aeronautica and Galileo Avionica, joint venture Thales Alenia Space, engine maker Avio and equipment manufacturer Microtecnica.
Launched at the Paris air show in June, the organisation plans a series of initiatives, including a convention in Turin next March aimed at putting contractors from Europe, North America and Russia face to face with the region's suppliers. Torino Piemonte Aerospace is also establishing ties with other aerospace regions around the world, including the UK Midlands, Aquitaine in France and Quebec in Canada, as well as Italy's other main aerospace centres: Rome, Naples and Varese near Milan.
The organisation's aims, says Gianpiero Masera, chief executive for promotion and territorial development at Turin chamber of commerce, include co-ordinating regional government-funded aerospace research projects between local suppliers and universities and - through trade missions, exhibitions or invited tours of the region - facilitating links between foreign buyers and SMEs, either on their own or bidding as a consortium. "Our main function is to create opportunities. We are not here to arrange contracts and are just there until the moment they meet," he says.
Torino Piemonte Aerospace believes it is one of the first regional clusters to restrict membership to those meeting strict criteria. Fewerthan one in six of Piemonte's 400 or so aerospace SMEs were admitted, even though more than 100 applied. "It was a very scientific selection process," says Masera. Applicants were "weighted" on criteria such as size and years in business, numbers of customers outside Italy, the ability of engineers and executives to speak English and certifications. "Not all had the skills to be ready for the challenge of internationalisation," he says. "It would be dangerous for our whole image if we were to propose companies who were below the right level of quality and commitment." However, the organisation holds out the possibility of widening its membership if applicants go on to meet the requirements - or rejecting members if they fall below standards. "We will be reviewing it every six months or so," says Masera.
Nimbus targets surveillance and media markets
Aerospace Polymer Solutions (APS) is one of a new breed of globally focused SMEs that Torino Piemonte Aerospace is keen to promote. Founded nine years ago by engineer and entrepreneur Andrea Romiti, the Turin-based company, which has 24 employees a turnover of €2.5 million ($3.6 million) and sells 70% of its output to non-Italian customers, is establishing a reputation for its thermoplastic composite engine parts, winning a contract from General Electric to build components for the GENx engine fan system.
7,000 Numbers of employees in region's five main aerospace companies
€1.3 billion Combined turnover of these five companies
3,000 Numbers of employees in region's 400 aerospace SMEs
€500 million Turnover of above
4.34 million Population of Piemonte (Italy: 58.8 million)
€114 billion GDP of Piemonte(Italy: €1,420 billion)
1.91 million Total Piemonte workforce
Although thermoplastics represent only about 7% of sales - it also makes titanium and titanium alloy aerostructures - it is "a niche that is growing for us at around 20% a year", says Romiti. "The future will be built on us finding ways to translate metals into polymers for our customers' applications, with the objective of making aircraft lighter and greener."
Romiti is a fan of the cluster approach, combining the talents of different SMEs to offer a packaged solution. "We are a niche company and don't want to unfocus. If we are capable of joining into clusters or consortia to bid for contracts, as long as there are specific roles and project management, we can represent ourselves as a unique business," he says. A group, including APS, recently won a $12 million contract from Volvo Aero with this approach.
Another innovative young company in Torino Piemonte Aerospace is unmanned air vehicle developer Nimbus. Formed last year as a spin-off from engineering firm Aris, based in Lombardore near Turin and with just 10 employees, Nimbus offers a range of UAV platforms based around a hybrid airship technology - essentially a sail-shaped balloon sitting on a carbonfibre tube frame to create an aerodynamic surface, and flown using a rudder, elevators and a propeller driven by a two-stroke engine. Its first prototype, the Nimbus 20, weighs 20kg (44lb), has a wingspan of 6.3m (20.6ft) and can carry a 9kg payload. Aimed at the close-range surveillance and media markets, it can fly for up to 2.5h at up to 1,000ft. A second variant, the 35kg Nimbus 35, capable of flying for 6h at up to 1,000ft, is under development.
The Nimbus UAV range, with its distinctive sail-shaped balloon, has aroused international interest
Although the prototype has not yet been certificated, Nimbus exhibited at the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International convention in the USA three months ago and says there has been interest in the platform both internationally and from the Italian military. Some operators of more complex UAVs in the USA are keen to adopt it as a training system for ground-based pilots, says Sara Fantino, an engineer on the project. "The aircraft is highly customisable, easy to store and has a very user-friendly ground station," she says. Nimbus wants to use the technology to develop larger, longer-endurance UAVs.
Piemonte is ideally placed to be a world player so long as it can present a united front with companies co-operating as part of a bigger supply chain, says Romiti. "One of the hardest challenges for an SME is giving a complete service to the customer," he says. But he believes the capability is there. "In this region, there are a lot of competencies in engineering and avionics. Turin has this heritage," he says.
Torino Piemonte Aerospace has three years to prove it to the world.