Iscar Metals

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Working with Professor Hiroshi Shimizu of Keio University in Japan, I.DE.A. designed and built the 8-wheel drive, 6-wheel steer "KAZ" electric vehicle. The running prototype can reach a top speed of 186 mph, and travel 186-miles at a constant 62 mph. Lithium-ion batteries sit beneath the flat floor and provide power to the eight, 55 kW motors, and drive the hydro-pneumatic system that replaces more conventional spring and damper suspension units.

A marble statue of the Dante Giacosa-designed Fiat Topolino sits in front of Fiat's Mirafiori plant. It is a reminder of the company's post-war roots and the vehicle that put Italy on wheels. During its lifetime, more than 500,000 Topolinos were produced at Mirafiori.

Graziano Trasmissioni supplies the gearbox for Ferrari's 360 Modena (pictured), 550 Maranello, and Maserati's 3200 GT and Quattroporte. Still a relative unknown in the North America, the company's growth plans call for the eventual addition of a production facility in the U.S.

ELSA is FATA Automation's answer to welding tip wear. After each cycle, the welding tips return to base, where rollers reshape the electrodes, greatly increasing their effective life. FATA claims this process is up to 10 times more effective than conventional shaping methods.

WANDA is a feeler gauge-based, 3D measuring system that can be directly integrated into most any manufacturing machinery to measure dimensional accuracy. FATA claims the technology isn't designed to guarantee the quality of the product, but the accuracy of the assembly process.

WILMA uses a standardized locating and clamping system, a high-performance monorail carrier, and modular components to provide maximum assembly floor flexibility. FATA says the system's adaptability is a major plus in an industry where manufacturing systems often outlive the products they were designed to produce, and allows the simple addition of niche vehicles built off a common platform.

So Many Lira, So Little Time

One of the world's most beautiful cities, Turin is home to a deep pool of automotive design, development, engineering, and supply talent. And these companies are working hard to be at the top of the shopping lists of automakers everywhere.

Ever been to a reverse trade show? No? Then you've never been to VETIS in Turin, Italy. This program runs concurrently with the Automotor and Auto Leather shows, and brings buyers identified by Instituto nazionale per il Commercio Estero (ICE) together in pre-arranged meetings with regional suppliers. Each meeting lasts 30 minutes, is conducted in English, and places each buyer in a separate room where the targeted suppliers come to call. Not surprisingly, the buyers I spoke with loved the format, wishing more trade shows would do the same. (For more information on VETIS visit:www.vetis.piemonte.org.)

Northern Italy's Piedmont region–which includes Turin–sits at the foot of the Italian Alps and accounts for 12.5%, or about 54 trillion lira, of Italy's exports. [Note: To convert lira to dollars–and rationalize those 30,000 lira lunch tabs–knock three zeros off the price, and divide by two. This will give you a ballpark estimate.] The region's unemployment rate is just under 7%, a full three percentage points under the national average, and exports from the region to the U.S. grew 20% l ast year. I joined a small group of international media on a whirlwind tour of the area to see what the region has to offer.

I.DE.A. Institute
This design house was founded in 1978 by Franco Mantegazza, and three of the six original I.DE.A. employees–including Mantegazza–are still with the company, which now employs 300. He is a spry 72 year-old who acts and moves as though he is still 30, is fluent in six languages, and delights in greeting his guests in their native tongues.

One of I.DE.A.'s first projects was Vehicle for Subsystems (VSS) produced for Fiat, and it showed how a common platform could be designed to support a number of different variants. Fiat used the idea when creating the Fiat Tipo, which spawned seven unique models. I.DE.A. also has designed and/or engineered to production status a number of vehicles, including the Daewoo Nubira, Suzuki Move, Nissan Terrano 2/Ford Maverick, Lancia Kappa, Tata Indica, and the Fiat Palio family.

"We will never build cars," says Mantegazza, "but we do everything from the clean sheet up to the point of manufacture, even acting as program managers with the OEMs and their various suppliers. We call it ‘360º design'." That process takes place in the six buildings on the I.DE.A. campus in Moncaleri, which include a mini assembly line for prototype build, and offices for clients.

More recently, the company worked with Professor Hiroshi Shimizu of Keio University in Japan to design and build an 8-wheel drive, 6-wheel steer electric vehicle called "KAZ" (Keio Advanced Zero-emission car) for the 2001 Geneva Motor Show. The running prototype can reach a top speed of 186 mph, and has a reported 186-mile range at a constant 62 mph. It's one of many concepts I.DE.A. has produced over the past 23 years.

"Automotive is the key to what we do," Mantegazza says, "but we've also designed bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, boats, tractors, busses, lighters, office buildings, and telephones. I.DE.A. stays fresh by doing non-automotive design, which is why the car companies keep coming to us. We are both very creative and good engineers, doing ‘Bauhaus for automotive,' " he says. "And we communicate like a family. That is the basis for I.DE.A.'s success." (www.idea.institute.it)

Fiat Mirafiori
There is no doubt that Fiat's Mirafiori plant was built when Mussolini was in power. Opened in 1939, this massive structure is cold, imposing, and devoid of the passion you expect from the Italian people. It's hidden behind an iron gate that prevents easy access from the boulevard, and hides a marble (the stuff is everywhere in Italy) statue of the Fiat Topolino (Italian for "little mouse"), the car that put Italy on wheels.

Mirafiori is massive, covering 3 million meters. There is a styling center on site, three engineering centers, a plant that builds Fiat's Torque engines and gearboxes, a stamping plant, and an assembly plant that builds the Punto, Panda, Multipla, and Marea. Of the of the 18,000 workers on site, 11,000 are in the various plants, and 39% are women. A 2.8-km track is part of the grounds, and is still used for testing vehicles built there.

Multipla assembly (180 units/day) is a contrast in human and robotic construction. The chassis subsystems–front subframe, side rings, etc.–are built up by hand, with each piece fitted into jigs that use holes stamped in the parts as locating points. Workers then tack weld the pieces together and send the completed unit down the line where it is placed in a larger jig.

The front subframe and floorpan are mated via slots and tabs to the side rings in this fixture, and joined by robotic welders. Other robots slot-and-tab the windshield frame and roof in place before they are welded. Each vehicle is electronically tagged with a chip that gives the robot information that determines its work pattern. Next, the completed body-in-white is sent to a laser inspection station to check tolerances. This information is charted, plotted, and audited by the plant's Elementary Technical Units, and used to adjust the production process as necessary.

After painting, the body is carried by an overhead rotisserie unit as the powertrain, exhaust system, suspension, brake lines, and other underbody components are installed. (Workers can rotate the carrier 70º.) Next, the vehicle is transferred to a palette for installation of the interior.

The instrument panel is supplied Just in time/Just in sequence to the line from an (unnamed) outside supplier [Fiat can be very secretive. In fact, no photos were allowed inside the plant.], while the doors are sent down a separate line. Next, the rear side glass is installed (a robot applies the sealant to all of the fixed windows), and covers for the front fenders are fitted. This is followed in quick succession by installation of the rear lights and wire harness, sunroof and headliner, sound deadener and carpet. The windshield is installed by robot while workers plop the rear window in place. Concurrently, the underhood area is completed, the hood installed and adjusted, and the airbag tested through its diagnostic connector.

The front and rear bumpers (also supplied JIT/JIS by an outside supplier) are installed, the tires (including spare) fitted, the fluids filled, and the front and rear seats (three each) bolted in place. At this point, the fully trimmed doors rejoin the vehicle and the interior trim-out is completed. The air conditioning system is filled and checked for leaks, the vehicle vibrated to settle it on its suspension, wheel alignment is checked, all electrical connections are tested, the lights are tested and aimed, and the vehicle is given a leak test. From there, it's out to the test track for a quick drive. (www.fiatgroup.com)

SEFI
Dr. Giovanni Ciraso, president of SEFI, S.p.A., discusses the company's takeover of MBB Armored Cars: "This gave us seven plants worldwide for armoring cars and trucks. We have an agreement to open a plant in China by Christmas that will build 30,000 armored trucks over the next three years. These will be used for carrying currency, and based on VW trucks. Our single plant will replace 34 smaller plants that–together–struggled to build 100 armored vehicles each year." One thing Dr. Ciraso doesn't like about the purchase of MBB Armored Cars are some of the clients. "I don't deal with the customers," says Ciraso, "because some of them scare me." He much prefers customers of the mountain bike company, Turro, that SEFI owns.

The main business for Ciraso's company is stamping and welding metal subassemblies and fuel tanks for European automakers, though not Fiat. "I chose to work with international automakers like VW, Mercedes, and GM, and not just work for Fiat." This way, when Fiat catches a cold, SEFI doesn't get pneumonia.

The SEFI plant in Chiavasso employs 87 people, though this number will rise to 150 as production rises. It produces fuel tanks, door panels, front frame members, and other "hidden" stampings for the VW Group's A4 platform (VW Golf and Jetta; Seat Toledo; Skoda Octavia; and Audi's A3, S3 and TT). Compared to an unnamed competitor's plant in Germany (Magna and Bentler are SEFI's main competition), claims Dr. Ciraso, "this plant has about one-fifth the number of workers. A lot of this is due to our reliance on automation, which has also given us the [financial] freedom to invest in alloys like magnesium, aluminum, and other alternate materials so we can meet the changing needs of our customers." Another advantage is the ability to changeover a line in, "15 minutes versus the 8 hours others need," he says. (www.sefi-spa.com)

Graziano Trasmissioni, S.p.A.
The phrase, "Get it in gear," could have been created for Graziano Trasmissioni. Gears (timing and transmission) and synchronizer subassemblies are two areas of competence that the company thinks will account for 50% of total sales in three years. Graziano already supplies Getrag, Renault, Fiat, BMW, Steyr, VW, and Ferrari, and works with Dana, Caterpillar, Eaton, John Deere and others in the heavy duty market.

"The growth in SUVs, pickups, and sports and luxury cars worldwide will drive a lot of our growth," says company sales and marketing director, Salvi Piazza. Already the company supplies transmissions for Ferrari's 360 Modena and 550 Maranello models, and the Maserati division's Quattroporte and 3200 GT. It also provided the gearbox for the limited edition F50 supercar.

Graziano has an impressive array of machinery on the floor of its Turin plant, and rebuilds and retrofits them in-house. In addition, the machines are arranged in cells that feed toward the aisle. Completed subassemblies are then joined with those next in line to produce a complete system. "With our focus on our R&D capabilities, test facilities, production flexibility, and establishing long term relationships with our customers, we think we can reach our goals," states Piazza. However, he says Graziano will have to pay greater attention to the North American market in order to make the expected growth happen. Although they have a sales office in Atlanta, Georgia, Piazza says, "We will need a production facility to get the most out of any investment we make there." (www.grazianotrasmissioni.it)

FATA Automation
ELSA, WILMA, and WANDA are not the names of Italian women. They are three new products from Advanced Technologies, a member of the FATA Group. ELSA stands for "Electrode Life Saving Autoshaper," WANDA stands for "Welding And New Dimensional Audit," and WILMA stands for "Welding Integrated Large Modularity Assembler."

According to FATA, the use of galvanized steel sheet takes its toll on welding tips, due to the high amperage necessary to weld it. As a result, it has become commonplace to stop the line to replace the welding tips, even though this interrupts production and adds cost. One solution to this problem has been to mill the electrodes back to their original shape. This increases life to 4,000 to 6,000 spot welds, but does nothing to eliminate line stops or reduce cost. In addition, repeatability leaves a lot to be desired, and dirt is often introduced into the system from milling waste.

"ELSA was designed to eliminate these negatives," says Dr. Antonio Recupero, FATA Automation's managing director. The goals for ELSA were simple: increase the minimum life of an electrode to one complete shift, eliminate the need to gradually increase the welding current, and produce high quality, repeatable welds.

When Dr. Recupero says the process is, "rather simple," he's not kidding. Once a welding operation is completed, the gun is returned to a shaping receptacle, and the electrode tips placed in a circular slot where they are guided into contact with three rollers. These wheels cold-shape the surface of the electrodes back to their original profile.

Surprisingly, the grease and oil on the tips get compacted as well, and FATA claims the hydrocarbons help prevent the steel's zinc from diffusing into the copper electrodes. "The combination of the shaping and the hydrocarbons has greatly increased electrode life to the point where 40,000 to 50,000 welds aren't uncommon for an electrode," says Recupero. ELSA is currently being used by VW, Fiat, Opel and Mercedes.

WANDA, on the other hand, is a feeler gauge-based, 3D measuring system that can be directly integrated into most any manufacturing machinery to measure dimensional accuracy. "Each coordinate of the part can be measured within time and space," says Recupero. "So we can calculate the distances between points, and verify any discrepancies with the CAD data or the results of other measurement systems like CMM."

Operational status is compared to established tolerances and signaled through green, yellow, or red pilot lamps. In addition, the measurement results can be displayed dynamically, topologically, statistically, or in a tabular format on a monitor.

"WANDA isn't used to ensure the quality of the product," says Recupero. "It's designed to verify the quality of the manufacturing process. With several stations distributed throughout the manufacturing process," he says, "it is possible to locate the source of anomalies–and find a way to eliminate them–before they cause trouble." According to Recupero, WANDA has been specified for a number of future manufacturing systems, and is currently used at VW's Wolfsburg and Ingolstadt facilities in Germany.

The third technology, WILMA, uses a standardized locating and clamping system, a high-performance monorail carrier, and modular components. "This makes it very useful when dealing with vehicles built on a common platform, adding capacity, or changing over," says Recupero.

The body-in-white rests on locating pins with floating supports that are located at each corner of the body, which minimizes intrusion into the work area, and the carrier travels at 1 meter/second between stations. When the stop switch is tripped, floor-mounted clamps lock down the pins on the body shell.

"The locator pins and clamps are easily accessed and repaired or replaced," says Recupero. "And the cell is a self-standing module. It can be run asynchronously, adapted to a number of layouts, and offers reduced design and erection time, a high level of re-use, and lower overall cost. And we see it being used from underbody completion to painting of the body-in-white."

FATA also sees the system's adaptability as a major plus in an industry where manufacturing systems often outlive the products they were designed to produce. "Not only does WILMA allow the cost-effective addition of niche vehicles to a line," says Marcello Favareto, FATA's business development manager, "its modularity enables automakers to introduce new models and remove old ones with minimal trouble, and without harming their ability to lay out the factory floor." (www.fatagroup.it)

My tour fostered a new appreciation for Italian design and technology, as well as of the country itself. Italy, as we know it today, is a young country that reached its present form after World War I, and has flirted to varying degrees with both fascism and communism in its youth.

Casual observation shows a population that exhibits the same worry, awe, and wonder as their former Eastern bloc neighbors as they try to adapt their traditional way of life to a fast-paced, uncompromising world. Should they get the tax reforms and greater independence from the entrenched bureaucracy that they seek, watch out. It could mean another Italian Renaissance.