Monday, May 27, 2013

Formula One Car Parts 3D-Printed by Just Thirty Workers


Small business makes big-name marques more competitive. From design to finished car in eighteen months

PINEROLO − The approach along broad, carless roads is lined with silent industrial buildings and empty factory forecourts. But that silence, the soundtrack of recession, is only on the outside. Inside, you can hear at once that Italy needs thousands, tens of thousands, of factories like this to defend its place in the industrial aristocracy of the West. Even so, Provel at Pinerolo counts for quite a lot on its own. With a staff of just thirty, it helps to transform the productivity of many of Italy’s best-known marques, enabling them to compete faster in international markets.

Provel, owned by the US 3D Systems company, is a parts printer for eyewear, dentures, racing car instrument panels and fully diecast engine components – incredible jewels of technology that would be impossible to reproduce by hand. Here in the foothills of the Alps is an outpost of the new industrial revolution that, in Italy as elsewhere, is growing out of decades of earlier innovation. Provel was set up in the Nineties by a Veneto-born chemist called Giorgio Buson. It makes prototypes for companies that could never have imagined they would be listed together in the Provel order book, including Ferrari, Fiat and Volkswagen’s Italdesign as well as luxury and fashion labels like Pomellato, Gucci, Bulgari and Luxottica, white goods producers Indesit and Electrolux, aircraft manufacturer Aermacchi and denture manufacturers. This is where prototypes of Formula One cars are made for Ferrari (and for its rival Red Bull), of compact saloons for the squeezed middle class, of jewellery for the noveaux riches of Shanghai and of sundry parts for household appliances, aircraft and even the human body.

The advantage is that the prototypes slash time to market. A 3D object is made using an injector which at each pass deposits five or ten hundredths of a millimetre of an acrylic resin, a metal alloy, a wax or a nylon powder. This is consolidated with a laser, or left to cool, and then tested. Until the desired result is achieved. Mr Buson recalls: “In the Seventies, it used to take six years from the designer’s first sketches to release to market. Today, we’re looking at eighteen months, and even that’s shrinking”. 3D prototype printing is the continuation of that race by other means. One Provel with thirty staff at the heart of an industrial system is enough to boost the competitiveness of groups whose combined turnover is worth tens of millions of euros. Printing is done inside machines that look not unlike large fridges. Some groups, Electrolux and Luxottica among them, opted in the end to buy the kit from Provel and carry out this phase of new product development in-house. There are also microwave oven-sized machines costing about a thousand euros for families. They print handles, cutlery, imitation jewellery and chess pieces at a temperature of 190 °C. Provel also supplies the software to design these articles.

Giorgio Buson, 63, was born into a Padua farming family. Nothing about his background hinted that he might end up at the centre of this silent revolution. Nothing, except one detail – the postwar nationalised chemical industry had located Montedison at Porto Marghera. Buson studied chemistry, hoping to find work in the nearby industrial zone, and started out selling resins. One day at a trade fair in Germany, he saw some prototype machines and decided to invest in them. He grew the business using internally generated funds – no bank loans – and eventually found himself working for the Ferrari wind tunnel when Schumacher won seven world titles, partly thanks to aerodynamics. Then in 2010, when 3D Systems of Rock Hill, South Carolina, was looking for a company to invest in to bring printers to Europe, Provel was ready. International capital and technology plus the creativity of a self-made Italian sit at the heart of a living industrial system. Perhaps the din of busy factories could yet ring out again in Italy’s thousands of Pinerolos.

Federico Fubini14 maggio 2013 | 12:46© RIPRODUZIONE RISERVATA
English translation by Giles Watson

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