Idra Thinks Big: Growth, New Strategies and an Order for the Largest Press in the World

General Manager Riccardo Ferrario announces the development lines for the next few years based on synergies with shareholder LK Machinery and product development: the new X-Press machines at highly competitive prices and the extension of the upper bracket OLCS range with 5500 and 6200-ton models.

by Mario Conserva

We met Riccardo Ferrario, Idra’s general manager, at the plant in Travagliato (near Brescia), to exchange views on the production and market situation of the die casting segment, on its outlook given the complex global scenario and of course to sum up the state of Idra. This was the starting point, and Ferrario announced for the first time the production and marketing strategies of the Brescia-based company for the next few years: “Idra is in excellent shape, we would like to consolidate the good results of the past few years, but also to pursue the aim of increasing turnover by 20% in the short term and for this reason we defined new strategies with the control shareholder, LK Machinery. The plan is already operational and it involves the new line of machines, X-Press, at particularly competitive prices for the production of standard die castings, and at the other end of the range the “Giga Presses”, 5500 and 6200, and a series of deep innovations on our upper bracket OLCS machines, with changes in the injection and energy saving systems and an aesthetical rationalization”.
The general manager of Idra opened the meeting with A&L magazine, in his friendly and pragmatic style, with a rapid introductory exchange, but a very meaningful one, both for the Brescia-based company and for the global die casting system, on the eve of such a relevant event for this segment as Gifa 2019. Ferrario added: “The project we worked on for Idra’ s future stems from a careful series of considerations regarding various factors, such as, the macroeconomic picture, our market segment, the company’s previous trends, our relationship with the control group; I shall try to offer in the most synthetic and clear way the necessary details”. It is however worth providing, to start with, an updated general picture of the company.

Idra today
Idra means die casting machines. Founded in 1946 by the Pasotti family in Brescia, the company built over the years a pathway to success with its products marketed all over the world. Ever since the Sixties, Idra was a reference point in the industry, trade operators remember well when the legendary “S” series represented the utmost reliability, strength and user-friendliness. With the ups and downs typical of the market, the early 2000s were a critical moment for Idra, with a phase of restructuring and downsizing of the industrial perimeter and the number of employees; however the strength of its entrepreneurial history, know-how and human capital built up over the years allowed the company to overcome these difficulties, the first decisive element in 2008 was the acquisition of the company’s majority package by the Chinese group, LK Machinery, an industrial giant listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange and market leader in China for light alloy die casting machines, injection machines for plastic components and work stations for mechanical machining. The second key element was the new general manager, Riccardo Ferrario, who joined the company in the following year, an engineer with a deep knowledge of business management and with twenty years of experience in metallurgy accrued working for Fiat, in the aluminium castings foundry of the Teksid group headed by Professor Sergio Gallo. The change of pace gave its strength back to the glorious Idra brand, which once more represented an excellent example of industrial reality: the company succeeded in reaching its break-even point in only 18 months, eliminating a loss of almost 8 million euro and starting to produce earnings as early as 2011; sales rose from 14 million euro in 2009 to 57 million in 2012, for the past four years consolidated revenues have varied from 85 to 95 million euro. Idra thereby went back to the top of the segment’s global ranking, a leader especially in large, high-technology die casting machines for high performance castings.

Riccardo Ferrario’s analysis
“To explain our objectives I think it might be useful to describe briefly the main lines of action which we followed in the recent past, starting from the end of 2008 when I was contacted to relaunch Idra which, on account of financial issues, was not going through a good period. I remember the decisive meeting with Mr. Liu, the founder and largest shareholder of LK Machinery, the company which had just acquired 70% of Idra’s share capital, while the rest was in the hands of Banca San Paolo. Liu was an entrepreneur with very clear ideas, he wanted to be the leader not only in the segment of low cost presses on the Chinese market, but he also intended to develop a leading presence on the entire product range, and he wanted Idra to preside the segment of high-technology presses for high performance die castings. In order to do this it was necessary to set the two brands clearly apart, LK for low cost machines and Idra for upper bracket solutions; no type of contact between the two concerns, not even on a distribution and financial level, the market had to understand clearly that LK was just a shareholder. Subsequently shareholder LK purchased the remaining 30% and the company became completely Chinese, but the initial strategies remained unaltered in their essential lines”.

What concrete effects did the arrival of LK bring about?
“The initial project envisaged in 2008 for Idra worked out well, China represented salvation. The leading shareholder invested in the company as agreed, allowing us to complete the development of the new OLCS model, and furthermore we were served the keys of the Chinese market on a silver platter, with indications as to where and to whom to sell our products in such hard years as 2009 and 2010. Without this help we would not have had the speed necessary to bring the accounts back to a balance in less than two years, in spite of the great efforts which we made internally to keep a lean and flexible structure capable of adapting itself to the different moments of the market. On the other hand, the asset of Idra’s know-how guaranteed the creation of cutting-edge products; what could have been difficult to fill was perhaps the competitiveness gap regarding costs. Luckily I come from the formidable Teksid school of the ‘80s and I know that nothing happens by chance, but that everything must be conquered with fierce determination and strong passion, starting from people. This is the premise to explain what we were like just ten years ago, how we overcame difficulties and what objectives we reached, but it is clear that times have changed, this is why we now need a different project.”

Looking at the outlook of your reference markets, which considerations may be inferred regarding the demand of quality die castings by the automotive industry during the next few years? And for segments with less performing product requirements, what forecasts may be suggested?
“The direction which the market will take is definitely the main issue to be examined in order to understand which decisions should be made. To begin with, let us consider where our market is and what it has become today; everything changed in a matter of a few years. The growth in the use of aluminium details and components in transportation underwent a dramatic trend in recent years, because it is a lightweighting which pays itself back.
In Europe the average aluminium content per vehicle was 50 kg in 1990 and should add up to more than 200 kg in 2025. A highly significant datum in this development is the opening of new, completely innovative areas, right up to a few years ago normal aluminium castings were limited to motor blocks, pistons, crankcases, wheels; today we are talking about thin structural castings, with a development which of course does not only concern castings, but is also referred to sheet metal for car bodies and structural extrusions in light alloys. This trend implied, for the upper bracket of the die castings market, a new generation of presses characterized by performance requisites which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: designed to be inserted in production cells with the highest level of perfection and automation, suitable for functioning with sophisticated and metallurgical innovative alloys, distributed on the global scenario in terms of completely different factors with respect to those operating a few years ago. The car market has always continued growing during the past few years, ecology speaks up louder than ever especially in the large automotive districts in Europe and in China, helped along by political and social values which created a practically unanimous consent regarding the limits on emissions. This allows to forecast an increasingly fast race towards lightweighting and therefore the use of a growing amount of light alloy die castings; independent of the type of driving force, the choice of aluminium may not be reversed, at least in the short term, because it is a reasonably winning choice, it is a fact that even the car manufacturers who are more opposed to change have resorted to using light metal die castings for the new petrol engines and for the chassis. In this respect, to conclude, I believe that the car market will keep on growing, looking at the most advanced products and demanding increasingly extreme performances from the light alloy details, most of which will be die castings. Of course, composite materials could replace the light metal in many applications with further advantages on lightweighting and perhaps even with design simplifications, but the issue of costs and, above all, the serious handicap of composites lined to their difficult recyclability remain open. In this domain it is very difficult to compete with aluminium, a splendid green metal and synonym of circular economy. Basically I believe in the continuity of the market which enabled us to grow so far. Regarding standard die castings, it is clear that the use of aluminium castings without particular structural requisites will grow physiologically and everywhere. We therefore also foresee a growth in the global demand for standard die castings, to be created with low cost machines, which today are not part of Idra’s offer, but which in consideration of the volumes at stake we think we should consider very carefully in the near future”.

What about Idra, in what situation is it today?
“We emerged in good shape from the difficult period, the choice of consolidating our upper bracket market worked, we so far focused on powerful and sophisticated machines for a demanding market such as the automotive industry, we were the first to build machines for structural elements, we bravely decided to invest in this direction in the middle of the crisis six years ago and today we produce the largest machines in the world, 5500 ton and 6200 ton presses. Recently we received the first order in the world for a 5,500 ton press, we are particularly pleased with our success and we believe that other orders will follow shortly. Even in this case we started off first on these projects which seemed to be impossible and now we can deliver Giga Presses in standard times. Our revenues have reached around 100 million euro for four years now, in an expanding market where we must therefore grow, we think we may aim at a growth in our revenues of about 20% to allow a correct consolidation of the industrial progress of the past few years. Producing more in order to sell more, exploiting our know-how to provide the market with the right product at the right time, therefore endeavouring to make our presses increasingly smart, so as to provide the user with the possibility of realizing an increasingly competitive product”.

What guidelines do you intend following to reach your aim?
“The first change of direction concerns the relationship with LK Machinery. Until now the group acted as a pure shareholder; from now on, besides helping us to secure more orders in China, it will provide us with production capacity for the new X-Press machines, press models with up to 900 tons of clamping force. The aim is basically stepping in with Idra machines, that is, with a product which is extremely interesting from a technological and performance standpoint, in the segment of medium to small presses, offered at extremely competitive process, and this is enabled, without costly investments, by exploiting the capacity available at LK. X-Press machines are totally designed and produced following the guidelines of upper bracket models and will have the reliability of Idra products at competitive prices, 30% less than OLCS models. This will not imply any negotiation on the quality and reliability of the product; it will just be thought of as a standard, with high volumes and produced in the LK plant in Shenzhen, in an area totally dedicated to us. Let us for instance think of a 500 ton machine, suitable for the production of die castings with no special structural demands, offered in its standard version, therefore without any sophisticated customizations, but qualitative, since it will have the same injection and clamping systems as OLCS and it will benefit from many of our innovations developed for the upper bracket range. I would like to add that in the typical market segment for X-Press machines the do-it-yourself concept works well; users in this segment like basic standard machines very much since they can enrich them gradually in-house depending on contingent demands, and I must say that in this respect the fact that Idra is part of Foundry Star Alliance, recently joined by a new partner, is definitely a very positive element for our clients who may count on an extraordinary technical knowledge available for them. For us here at Idra this is an interesting challenge on a relatively uncharted territory, we are pursuing it with intent and determination, we already tested the market with about ten machines sold in China, Brazil and Mexico, the response has been very positive, we trust that this choice will represent the fundamental tool to reach our objective of 120 million euro revenues.
Regarding the upper bracket range, OLCS, here our interventions aim at the continuous improvement of the machines, exploiting in depth and with continuity the great wealth of knowledge accrued in Idra. We are aiming at significant innovations which concern several essential aspects of performances:
• new solutions for the hydraulic plant, capable of determining a certified 40% saving on energy consumption;
• more stable injection conditions in all phases, so as to guarantee the best possible dynamic force in every possible operating phase and therefore the possibility of manufacturing larger structural castings with thinner walls;
• a deep evolution in the body of cars, doors and protection, improving aesthetics and modularity;
• as regards Industry 4.0, development of new architectures for the die casting cell with a central control hub monitoring the press and all other peripheral equipment, so as to ensure the central role of control programming and the simplification of the commissioning of machines at the clients’ premises.
I think this should provide in a precise summary the message that Idra is more than ever alive. We are working on a very challenging series of innovations which concern the structure of the company’s industrial operations, the growth and diversification of the technological content of our machines, the way we approach the global market.
We are aligned with our long-standing objective, helping the foundry to change and being increasingly science as well as art; it is difficult to do so on our own, today more than ever the support of our shareholder LK Machinery is essential, as they always interpreted well the best role that Idra could have within the group. At the same time I would like to stress the importance of a collective initiative such as Foundry Star Alliance in order to be equipped in the best way to renew our technologies. This has proved to be a bold and effective operation which created important synergies among leading suppliers of complementary plants and equipment for presses enhancing the value of the industry, it worked and it will be increasingly useful in the future”.