Kilns that accept challenges
Spezzano di Fiorano Modenese, in the industrious heart of the Sassuolo ceramics industry district, with a very telling address (via della Chimica), is home to NBP Costruzioni Termomec-caniche, a firm that already exudes a sense of clean, cool efficiency when you first see the plant and office building. Over the last few decades, this district has developed a know-how that has made it a world leader for the quality of its products and production technologies. Just a few hundred metres away is the Ferrari test track and, when the red devils are out going through their paces, the furious roar of the motors is more of a stimulus than a disturbance.
“We started up here in 1975, producing burners and equipment for industrial combustion aimed primarily at the ceramics industry. Then, as that area was fairly dominated by the big groups, we gradually tried to expand to take in systems and thermal machines in general, before then also moving into plant equipment. In the process, we split the company to specialise in several fields, with the right staff to cope with the various different needs. We are a young company: we have made diversification into a philosophy of production and a strategy for competition. We like to transfer our technical experience from one field to another and try our hand at new areas, such as attitude tests, to see how far we can manage the various types of problems to be solved.”
The speaker is Rinaldo Annovi, 49, in the combustion sector ever since he finished his studies and the managing director of NBP since 1987.
“One of the sectors in which we have specialised is enamelling kilns. What put us on this track and then helped us along was our meeting with Adolfo Acquati and his experience: for more than thirty years, he was co-proprietor and technical manager at Celli and Fornimpianti, two trail-blazer firms for everyone around here who has worked with kilns and driers for enamelling. Even today, Mr. Acquati is still our expert and our flag-bearer in this sector, which accounts for about 20% of all NBP activities.
“Enamelling machines are beautiful and technologically interesting: there was space on the market, so we made our début with the conviction that we had something to contribute. We invested and now we are content. We produce kilns and driers of all kinds for vitreous enamel: continuous and intermittent, ‘U’-shaped, powered by gas or electricity, infrared, with medium and low temperatures. Our plants are complete, not standardised but adapted – in terms of size, capacity and so on – to the needs of the customer and of the line where they are destined to be installed. Our kilns have the advantage of being potentially fully prefabricated: pre-constructed and insulated in our plant, the kiln is then assembled on site, ready for work after just a handful of weeks. This cuts costs significantly, avoids production stoppages and above all means that the customer does not have to suffer all the dust pollution caused by working with insulation materials in the place where the product will eventually be used. Our experience in the combustion sector enables us to guarantee that our kilns are high performance, ecological and in line with the most stringent and protective of standards.
“We are still a young concern in the enamelling business, but our aim is to work well. We have the benefit of a fully-equipped experimentation centre, a department of which we are very proud and actually the one that gets the highest use from us: that is where we test our products and materials, check our processes and perfect the passages from one technology to another.”
Annovi then unfurls the impressive list of advantages enjoyed by NBP products: a high degree of automation (the prefabricated IMG-003 kiln, for example, can be controlled completely by an operator sitting at a desk, using a simple but sophisticated console; but all the company’s kilns are easy to use – and that is a far from negligible added value these days); optimised energy consumption, in terms both of electricity and of combustion fuel; insulation of the kilns not with soft ceramic fibre, but with mechanically more robust rigid panels; maximum exploitation of the radiator tubes and the possibility to fire at low temperatures. “We also have infrared kilns for low-temperature serigraphy,” adds Annovi. “The question of low temperature firing needs further attention: it is a problem whose solution calls for a culture and an experience that are still lacking to a certain extent. Rather like the question of colours.
“One interesting alternative market could be large vitreous enamel panels for cladding buildings and lining tunnels, hospitals etc. These call for special kilns, some of them more than four metres high: there are not many of them around and the ones there are tend to be old. For several years now, we have been conducting experiments into the distribution of heat in tall vertical walls: if this application takes off, I think we shall be ready for it…” states the managing director with a smile.
“We have reaped some good rewards from our work, also because of the continuing collaboration of enamel producers: they are the ones who have to give us input; we then experiment to try and solve their problems. “
And while I am on the subject of technical collaboration – Annovi gets his answer in before we even have a chance to ask the question – “I want to stress that CISP does a great deal, organising interesting, useful events. It is the only association to which we belong…”.
It had to come sooner or later: the question about markets and their globalisation. “The last few years have been very critical ones in Europe: plenty of refurbishment work going on, but orders for new kilns were few and far between. For NBP’s enamelling kiln sector, the most interesting markets have proved to be in Eastern Europe, especially in Russia, where obsolete equipment is being replaced with modern equipment capable of producing for the domestic market. Meanwhile, some dangerous competitors are rearing their heads around the world: Turkey has some very well qualified manufacturers; then there is Germany, despite all its rigidity, and above all China, which will still be an interesting market for another few years, but will then become a large, fearful competitor.
“We do not lose too much sleep worrying about globalisation in itself,” concludes Rinaldo Annovi, “it affects us like it affects everyone, but it can also have its positive sides, so it is very welcome. In a short time, we have succeeded in making our name in all our sectors of operation… Then it is obvious that you have to roll up your sleeves and work fast and well if you want to keep up. Evolution and change are so rapid these days, so if you don’t have something ready and waiting at all times…”
It doesn’t take much to understand from the NBP managing director’s broad smile that they have something ready and waiting… and it looks as though it is something interesting and quite well advanced.
As a matter of fact, it could hardly be otherwise, here in the heart of one of those Italian districts that have made competitiveness and continuous innovation into the key for their worldwide success story, just a stone’s throw from the circuit where roaring creations are tested by Ferrari, at present probably the world’s most solid symbol of Made in Italy.
Established in 1975, the company first concentrated on constructing industrial burners, mostly for the ceramics sector.
Since 1987, the year when the company’s policy underwent a complete overhaul, attention has come to be focused increasingly on the industrial combustion market in the broad sense. The firm is now organised in a series of different departments: Components, Combustion Systems, Thermal Machinery and Equipment.
In 1999, the company started working with Adolfo Acquati, previously co-proprietor and technical manager first with Celli (a firm with thirty years of experience) and then with Fornimpianti, both firms specialised in kilns and driers for enamelling.
Experience, professionalism, targeted investments and Mr. Acquati’s knowledge of the sector stimulated the company to grow further, with the result that it carved out a significant space for itself on the market in a handful of years.
NBP constructs innovative machines, paying special attention to the needs of the environment, to energy saving and to simplicity of use.
At the moment, NBP occupies a plot measuring some 12,000 square metres, of which half are under roof, and employs about sixty people.