Technology, planning and imagination applied to cookers
Tecnogas is based in Gualtieri (Reggio Emilia) and is part of the Gruppo Antonio Merloni of Fabriano (Ancona), the company is an Italian leader in the market for free-standing cookers. Quality, design and innovation and prompt response to regional requirements: these are the keywords for a company that has already prepared for globalisation. The managing director Luigi Santi presents the sector's demands to manufacturers of systems and enamels, at CISP.
When they hear the name Gualtieri, many think of the extravagant naïf painter Antonio Ligabue, famous for his colourful paintings with the landscapes of Reggio Emilia, animals and self portraits with wild expressions.
However, extravagance is left behind on the banks of the River Po amidst the rows of poplars, firmly closed outside the doors of Tecnogas, as soon as the alert receptionist greets you and writes your name on a visitor's pass which will allow you to wander around the premises. We are in the abode of the leading manufacturer of cookers, part of the Group which is one of the biggest producers of domestic appliances. The purchasing director of Antonio Merloni Spa and managing director of Tecnogas, Luigi Santi, comes to welcome me, he is the living synthesis of the union between the two companies.
"In 1997, Antonio Merloni Spa bought out Tecnogas, which had been sold some years earlier by the Contini family. Apart from the four factories producing domestic appliances in Fabriano and Nocera Umbra and the two factories for GPL canisters and tanks for domestic use (Sassoferrato, in the province of Ancona and Matelica, in the province of Macerata), Antonio Merloni owns factories producing domestic appliances in Spain, Finland and Sweden and sales companies for the Group's products in Great Britain, Germany, France and Eastern Europe. Overall the Group employs 6,115 people and in the year 2000 the turnover was 2,100 billion lire (equal to e 1,084,560.000). One of the qualities of the Group is its flexibility, its capacity for meeting the demands of each individual market. This is evident in the products designed specifically for the regional markets which have met with great success: the double cavity oven introduced onto the Israeli market, designed to meet the kosher tenets; the three flame model for the Far East, where many foods are fried and high temperatures are required, the double ovens for Great Britain, with one large and one small oven, which can be used simultaneously or separately, with considerable energy saving. In fact Antonio Merloni was founded as a tertiary manufacturer, and remains so today, although the Group also sells its own brands worldwide, In Italy (10 - 15%) but above all abroad (85 - 90%).
Tecnogas," continues Luigi Santi, beginning to speak specifically of the Gualtieri-based company, "also sells more abroad (75%) than in Italy (25%). It is also a leader on the Italian market in the field of free-standing cookers. We produce less built-in cookers, but we are preparing to recover ground in this area."
So, let's take a look at the data relative to the world of cooking...
In Italy the free-standing sector loses points every year as preference grows for built-in cookers: this is confirmed by the ANIE data, which in 2001 show - 0.9% with respect to 2000 in production and - 2.1% for home sales; it must be said, however, that the reduction seems to have reached an all time low and therefore the data for 2001 will tend to be consolidated.
It is comforting to see that the national product showed an increase of 1.3% in exports over the same period.
As far as built-in cookers are concerned, there has been a noticeable increase in production and sales in the Italian market.
The production of cookers in Europe is mainly concentrated in Italy, Spain and Turkey and is reaching interesting levels in some countries of Eastern Europe where the cost of manpower is very low.
The demand for built-in appliances is growing everywhere; this type of product is particularly appreciated because it allows a wide range of combinations of furnishing and in some countries (such as Germany and France) it is a synonym for quality.
The free-standing cooker still has an important market and continues to be preferred in countries such as Great Britain, the Middle East and South America.
Q: What role does enamel play in all these changes in taste and trends at Tecnogas?
"For our company," Luigi Santi answers without hesitation, "enamel has always been a synonym of quality and for this reason Tecnogas has always believed in the technological progress of this material. In fact we were one of the first, in 1996, to develop the "two coats, one fire" process on degreased metal, abandoning the enamelling on decarburised, pickled steel. The importance of enamel in the production of cookers and ovens is to be found in its aesthetic value, increasingly demanded by the client as a fundamental requisite. At present we are developing, with our suppliers, metallized enamels and new colours, which will differentiate our products on the market and be a valid alternative to stainless steel, which, now that it is fingerprint-proof and comes in different surface finishes (more or less brilliant, matte, opaque...), has gained ground over enamels."
Q: What are you expecting at this point of the state of the art, from the producers of enamels and systems?
"The company's requests are linked to the need to make the enamelling process more flexible and, at the same time, simpler, reducing the costs and respecting the environment. For this reason we are working to optimise the application of powdered enamels on suitable steels and not necessarily decarburised. The development of new colours, will also require systems that guarantee, as well as quality and low cost application, flexibility in colour changes.
The development of drying plant with low energy consumption will also allow us to reduce enamelling times and lessen polluting emissions. Finally it is necessary to make enamels easier to apply - it must be similar to the application of a paint - which means less waste and improved appearance."
Q: Do you think that CISP has carried out the institutional duties assigned to it over the years?
"It cannot be denied that CISP has represented an important technical support for the entire sector. The development of technologies in the field of enamelling has come about thanks to the research activities of the work groups headed by CISP. Today we firmly believe in cooperation, also because globalisation will lead us to enter other markets and other technologies. Enamel, in order to remain competitive in such a vast market, will need to carry out constant research and development activities, which can only be guaranteed by synergy between producers and enamellers. The role of the CISP is fundamental in all this."
Q: Would you mind going into more detail about globalisation?
"In my opinion it is an irreversible process, and it is foolish to think that it can be halted. Even though it is not ideal for domestic appliances: we are talking of products, and in particular cookers, which can easily be afforded by countries with low-cost manpower. There will also be the disadvantage of direct comparison between markets with differing economic levels. However, we cannot remain still and accept the situation or even think of moving production abroad: we must remain in Italy, react and gather the positive aspects of this process. In the first place the great market that is being created, with its enormous buying potential which we hope will grow in the short-term. In the meantime we must learn to take the blows. Our weapons are: creativity, service, we must become more efficient so that our workforce can give its best, and press the institutions to reduce taxes. When the developing countries have increased their buying power there will be room for all the manufacturers, and we must not forget those 'virgin' markets. This is the case of the East European countries (Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Rumania) where as Gruppo Merloni we sell 800,000 units and as Tecnogas more than 100,000 units a year.
I return the pass to the courteous receptionist and walk out into the evening air of Gualtieri. The December sunset lights the snow and the rows of poplars along the river banks. It is a fine red that would have appealed to Ligabue and would also look good on a hob. It might be useful for the promotion of enamels which, we agreed with rag. Luigi Santi of Antonio Merloni and Tecnogas, must proceed through colour and imagination as well as technological research and the most consolidated qualities of enamel.