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Italian wheels: a business worth 135 million euros a year
An output worth over 135 million euros, most of it (78 million) manufactured outside Italy: these are the provisional figures for last year for the Italian wheel industry, published in December 2007 by Anima , the Federation of the Italian Associations of Mechanical and Engineering Industries. Export play a leading role for this sector, accounting for 58% of revenues in 2007. The figure is slightly higher compared to the 56% registered in 2006 and is predicted to remain stable in 2008. The European Union is the main export destination. On the whole, last year the industry grew both on the domestic market (+2%), as well as on the international scene (+4%), while retail prices increased by 1%. In 2008 turnover is expected to grow by 3.4% in Italy and by 3.8% Employment levels should remain stable around the 750 mark.
UCIR, the Italian union of wheel producers, is the sector’s trade association affiliated to Anima. “In modern societies nothing gets lifted anymore: everything that can be moved is placed on wheels”, explains UCIR’s President, Paolo Alvisi. “Therefore, our industry produces a wide range of products, from the wheels placed under chairs to those fitted to trolleys. Our products are also used, in general, for the so-called collective service industry: in hospitals and supermarkets, as well as for large exhibitions on wheels.
The sector produces millions of items. The estimated annual turnover in the EU is estimated at around 500 million euros. In Italy there are around 15-20 producers, most of which (10) are members of UCIR. Normally these are medium-sized enterprises, with 10 to 150 employees. “Wheel producers – adds Mr Alvisi – contribute to create complete mobile logistics systems: many objects around us are fitted onto wheels. Even for the most unexpected ones, like washing machines, for which we produce millions of items. Without forgetting shelving units and large displays for supermarkets”.
Obviously the specification of the products depend on their use: wheels used for ‘collective services’ (large-scale retailing, distribution, catering) have a diameter between 30 and 125 millimetres. ‘Heavy-duty’ applications require a bigger size: when fitted to rubbish bins, for example, the diameter is over 200 millimetres. In the industrial sector the differentiation is even more marked, as special wheels are need for factory floor trolleys, professional cleaning machines, for elevators and lifts. In these cases, for examples, wheels also double up as a pulley.
The Italian wheel industry is not concentrated in a specific district. Some small production ‘poles’ have been created, however, around some of the leading players in this sector. “The largest ones are in the Emilia-Romagna region, in the provinces of Modena and Bologna, in Lombardy, where a proper mini-district has been created in the Omegna lake area, and in Veneto, where they supply to local chair industry”, indicates Mr Alvisi.
One of the difficulties that wheel producers have had to overcome in the last years has been the rise in the cost of raw materials: essentially iron and steel plates, nuts and bolts, ball bearings, rubber and polyurethane (for the ‘threads’ of the wheels). “We can make up for the increase in fixed prices by producing plastic wheel rims”, says Mr Alvisi. “Sometimes nylon is used, without any additional coating, produced with natural or synthetic rubber or polyurethane. And while other industries hike prices upwards, passing on the cost increases to the consumer, in our case clients are masters of the industrial process and they cannot be left disappointed. The fact that our prices have not changed for almost a decade is a demonstration”.
The only way to survive for wheel producers is to leave the lower end of the market, where it is not possible to compete on price with Asian competitors. “We have since moved to a higher category of products, and at the same time we developed a sophisticated range of services, offering for example an extensive distribution network. In Europe – says UCIR’s chief – there’s only us and the Germans left supplying the whole Continent”. What sets apart Italian wheels is a high level of safety and sophistication, which makes them hard to copy respecting the standards in terms of identification and traceability. “Those that offer a distinctive product become a real ‘brand’ in the sector. Some Italian firms have managed to do so, although our strongest selling point is the extent and the flexibility of our services: our supply times have been cut to one week, and we can deliver at any time of the year”, claims Mr Alvisi.
Italian producers are also strong on design, traditionally one of the best features of Made in Italy products. Recently one of UCIR’s associates was awarded for the best office furniture wheel design. But producers aim at ensuring that aesthetics do not get in the way of practicality. Innovation is one of the hot issues in the industry: “the key challenge is to create an interface between producers and consumers, which at the moment is lacking. We are struggling to find a way to communicate effectively with our end users, which are the only ones who can promote innovation indicating potential shortcomings and demanding products which are better suite to their needs. Design can only improved if there a contact is created with consumers: this – concludes Mr Alvisi – is the main objective that our sector is facing in the next few years”.