From automotive to constructions, from heat exchangers to furnishing, from lighting to infrastructures, from electronics to engineering: creative aluminium semis develop the advanced solutions which the manufacturing industry requires
by Mario Conserva and Alberto Pomari
Aluminium extrusions are an important resource for smart manufacturing, from the automotive industry to windows and curtain walls from heat exchangers to furniture, from lighting to infrastructures, from electronics to engineering, in every application extrusions express themselves with clever, useful and innovative ideas. But this segment of the aluminium industry must today face the new rules of the global market, in order to be competitive extrusion requires an increasing amount of added-value machines, plants, equipment, technologies, design for applications which ensure the highest possible level of reliability, availability, capacity and efficiency. The extrusion of the future seen from the standpoint of the European, and Italian, entrepreneur, is today faced with new production and consumption focuses, with a very different scenario with respect to only ten years ago, where there are no more guaranteed positions while the competition, often on the verge of unfairness, is fierce. Especially in Italy, characterized by a consistent excess in production with respect to the domestic demand, the condition of frailty of a system made up of small and medium enterprises with a remarkable sense of individuality and little team spirit, also derives from limited possibilities of accessing raw material, which is a fundamental element of the cost structure in this type of aluminium processing, with consequent difficulties in finding means and resources to invest in development and innovation projects. In such a scenario there are interesting opportunities for companies capable of developing new ideas and solutions, but counting only on previous experience and on the corporate culture which are a valid asset of the Italian extrusion segment could not be enough to stop the industry’s decline. In this article we shall present a synthetic picture of the global extrusion system with a more detailed vision of the European and Italian situation, along with a range of special applications of extrusions, case histories of efficient solutions in the added value chain to improve the finished products.
Extrusion in the world
Worldwide the extrusion system is made up of roughly 1,800 plants with an overall capacity of about 30 million tons of profiles on account of the figures of China and the performances of North America, the Middle East, Russia, Brazil and India, as well as the appreciable upswing in Europe, even though it is far from the 2006-2007 figures.
Figure 1 shows the estimated number of the extrusion presses in the main world areas, and Table 1 shows an estimate of the production capacity of different countries, based on the some available sources, analysis methods are not always uniform, therefore values should be considered as approximate. Regarding the clout of the extrusion segment within the context of commercial aluminium products, extrusion profiles are worth about 30% of all the uses of light alloys, a little less than rolled products and a little more than foundry castings, while the uses of rods and forged products lie far behind. With regard to the final destination of the extrusions in the different downstream sectors, an estimated evaluation is shown in Figure 2 for the main world areas.
Extrusion in Europe
In Europe extrusion is characterized by an estimated presence of over 300 plants (Source: EA, 2017) with an overall production capacity of almost 5 million tons of profiles and a production of about 3 million tons, which correspond to about 30% of the total production of semis. Deliveries of extrusions in Europe reached their peak in 2007, with about 3.5 million tons; the following economic crisis determined a drop in production and demand, with a partial recovery which was different from one country to another. According to estimates by the European Aluminium EA, the largest market in Europe is Germany followed at a distance by Italy, France and Spain, and at a greater distance by other countries. In terms of final destination, the most important sector is building and construction (more than 40%) followed by transportation (about 20%) referred to rail transport, cars, heavy vehicles and ships. The supply of large structural class extrusions, which can provide mechanical strength and a considerable weight reduction with respect to other materials while offering the same performances, is important for development in these industries. As to the European market, over 15% of extrusions is destined to engineering and mechanical industry applications, with very diverse uses, from machines and plants for heat exchange to hydraulics; the rest is referred to countless final destinations such as, furnishings, electric appliances, electronics, signals. It should be noted that from one country to another there are important differences regarding the final uses, the latest trend shows as a common topic the reduction of importance of the building and construction industry and generally an increase in transportation.
Extrusion in Italy
Italy is still the second market for extrusions, with a production estimated by Centroal of about 610,000 tons, constantly if slowly increasing from the lowest levels reached in the past years, but still a long way behind the over 820,000 tons reached in 2008. With relatively limited changes in exports and imports we have the final result of an internal demand which is slightly higher than 400,000 tons in 2017, showing a slight growth, even, but still below expectations, largely on account of the static situation of the building and construction industry, with the absence of an upswing in investments in new buildings and residential constructions, while the demand for refurbishing is in better shape. An interesting datum is the considerable growth in importance of the domestic demand of extrusions in the most advanced and qualitative applications, especially in the automotive industry, requiring an efficiency and a manufacturing design, a clear understanding of extrusion technology and an accurate knowledge of the processes in order to reach the desired result. It must be said that the Italian extrusion segment is historically characterized by a significant excess capacity, the difficulties of this segment during the past years are clearly shown by the dynamics of the number of extrusion presses functioning in Italy. If we consider the production capacity for extrusion still present in Italy and we compare this datum with the production and use of extrusions both on the domestic and European markets it may reasonably be assumed that the settling phase of the industry is still going on.
At a global level, the development of extrusion does not show growth problems, the key variables which affect the competitive dynamics of the market are basically the presence of upstream businesses, the technological level, the use of production capacity, the cost structure and this means that the future looks different from one area to another.
The European extrusion system is a complex value chain, at the high end of technological knowledge, with solid potential to develop new aluminium applications in a market increasingly oriented by the design and creation of new products, but it is a mature system and must tackle some difficulties in growing because of the crisis of the market which above all influences the building and construction segment. The fragmented structure of suppliers in some countries such as Italy is on one hand a negative datum because it causes the fact that many extrusion applications even in the most mature markets are simply adaptations of a basic product and only the most advanced companies work on the development of completely new or deeply redesigned products to optimize the properties of light alloys. But for the same reasons the structure of supply determines flexibility and allows an intense and close cooperation between extruders and clients to promote innovation and implement efficient supply chains, which is of the utmost importance especially for the entire OEM industry downstream. It seems that a continuity in the segment’s growth rate in Europe may be ruled out, at least along the lines of the Nineties and the turn of the century, and a gradual upswing will be affected by the quest for competitiveness through innovative product and component industrialization processes, technology development, environment-friendly products and processes, a constant implementation of the quality chain. The multiplicity of non-integrated companies in European extrusion (on the same lines as foundry castings and to some extent even non-integrated rolling mills) is condemned, if it is to survive, to fight a daily battle to make its product increasingly competitive with original applications for its clients. This requires a constant engagement of material, technology and downstream process research and development, in equipment and products, and not always and not all non-integrated processing companies are equipped to tackle seriously the necessary innovation in order to compete with low cost processes in developing countries. Besides European extruders start off with a consistent disadvantage in access to raw material, which, as we mentioned, is an important item in the production cost structure for this type of company, with tariffs on the raw metal which absorb resources destined to the production process when they should not do so, as this withdraws them from the necessary investments in competitive innovation.