Like a designer suit or motor scooter, Piaggio Aero Industries believes its "made in Italy" tag works wonders when it comes to marketing its P180 Avanti twin-pusher turboprop in North America. The fact that its president - Piero Ferrari - shares his name with the world's most famous sports-car marque also does no harm to the aircraft's brand image among fashion-conscious owner-flyers and corporate customers looking for a transport to set them apart from the crowd.

"Our Italian-ness is important," says chief executive Jose Di Mase, who says the P180 - now being updated to an Avanti ll model with new Rockwell Collins cockpit - competes against its mostly US rivals as much on its hangar presence as its performance as the world's fastest turboprop. "The appearance of the aircraft is different. While Americans are seen as practical in their products, Italians are artistic. The P180 is a sculpture. Cost is not an issue up to certain limits. If you need to spend a little more to have the best, you do it. Americans will tend to save on the intangibles. Our engineers would never go against this culture to design something they are not proud of," he says.

It is six years since Piero Ferrari, vice-president of the automobile manufacturer, and fellow investors acquired the assets and name of the 120-year-old, Genoa-based engineering company, after an ill-fated $300 million investment in a joint venture with Lear, which would have seen a factory built in the USA, plunged the company into receivership in 1994.

At the time of the takeover, 17 Avantis had been delivered, more than half of them to the Italian military. Since then, production has been ramped up from six aircraft in 2000 to 19 aircraft this year (including three for the Italian air force) and in 2005 the figure should reach 24, says Di Mase. Turnover should increase by a fifth to $180 million this year. The USA - where the company this year opened a new headquarters in West Palm Beach, Florida - represents 70% of the orderbook. In May, US fractional ownership company Avantair placed an order for 29 Avantis, the biggest ever order for Piaggio.

Now the problem is not a lack of sales, but capacity. "We are a small European company which has been transformed from an artisan workshop," says Di Mase. "The most aircraft we ever traditionally built in a year was nine." But Piaggio will not be rushed into bad investment decisions again, he says, and a US assembly operation is not on the radar. "We don't want to take a step longer than our leg," he says. "We don't want to take risks."

Instead, Piaggio is opening a factory in Villanova di Albenga, between its Genoa assembly plant, which it is keeping, and the French border. The new facilitywill replace its 90-year-old plant in Finale Ligure. The rise in production should mean an increase in the 1,300-strong workforce,but not considerably because at the same time Di Mase plans to outsource lower-value manufacturing and subassembly work."We are going through a process currently of deciding what technology we need to keep and whatwe want to outsource," he says.

Apart from the P180, the company is responsible for the out-of-production P166 twin-propeller reconnaissance aircraft and carries out a range of engine maintenance and subassembly work on Honeywell, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce engines. It also manufactures aerostructures, including the tail section for the Dassault Falcon 2000 and the centre wing box for the Lockheed Martin/Alenia C-27J transport.

Only half its sales are from the P180, but the Avanti remains its flagship product and will for some time. "We are looking to develop new products, including in the very light jet category, but we have a unique concept with the P180 and see no competition in our particular market," says Di Mase.

Source: Flight International