Three extrusion presses, anodizing, a next-generation painting line and a brand new automatic profile storage warehouse. The company is consolidating the investment plan launched a few years ago to develop the range of products and finishes. An interview with Alberto Bertoli, CEO of Sepal Spa
Sepal, Società Estrusione Profilati in Alluminio, founded in Gussago, near Brescia, in 1973 by Domenico and Ercole Bertoli, is a historical company specialized in the production of aluminium profiles for industry on the Italian and European market. With a strategic investment plan defined in 2013, currently in its consolidation phase, the company, starting from the first 1,350 ton extrusion press, rapidly developed in recent years, acquiring a precise identity in the supply chain and gaining important market shares. Today Sepal ranks with great authority in the extrusion segment with three presses, a 2,500-ton press and two 1,870-ton presses, adding up to a total production capacity of over 28,000 tons per year and a wider production range in terms of quality and quantity. The equipment of the new plant in Lograto, also near Brescia, is completed by a powder coating plant and an anodizing plant, as well as a brand new automatic profile storage warehouse, in addition to the heritage of 40 years of experience at the service of its national and international customers. We met Sepal’s managing director, Alberto Bertoli, who followed in the footsteps of his father Domenico in the aluminium field, and with him we talked about the company’s activity starting from the latest phase of growth and the description of this new warehouse for profiles: “Those who know the history of the development of aluminium and of the extrusion chain in Italy know that ours is a relatively young segment, in Italy the first private and non-integrated plants for the production of aluminium profiles date back to the beginning of the 1960s. We are already in the second generation in a segment which, in Italy and in Europe, has experienced its period of great growth until a few years ago; at the moment we are in a phase of reflection, aggravated by the global health crisis. Being accustomed to bite off only as much as we can chew, we ensured that the company in more quiet times will have a solid structure with strong foundations consisting of technique, culture and corporate climate, teamwork, strategic choices shared as much as possible, a set of elements capable of making a company successful. Our latest growth plan defined in 2013 included the renewal of the plants starting from the decommissioning of the plant in Gussago, Sepal’s original historical headquarters, where there were two extrusion lines which were now obsolete. The layout of the new plant in Lograto, with the new presses replacing those in Gussago, included the implementation of painting and anodizing equipment, allowing us to create an integrated plant, from extrusion to profiles with a surface finish. Right from the start we had envisaged an area of the plant where we would later install an automatic warehouse. In our plan, the warehouse was to be, and is in fact today, the throbbing heart of production, because it lies exactly in the middle between the extrusion of the profiles and the finishing plants. At first we decided to postpone the investment, managing the material on the ground with a traditional warehouse for over two years. Customers acquired during this period increasingly needed to keep profiles in stock for subsequent painting or oxidation and the ensuing preparation of the “picking” to create the required order lots. For this purpose we initially used the Gussago warehouse, setting up a stock of profiles managed for our customers in about 7,000 square metres. At the same time we began the construction of the automatic warehouse, planned in the central area of the new Lograto plant. The new automatic warehouse uses 4,000 independent cells. All the extruded material to be completed with finishings is directly stored in the metal skids (that is, the cells in which the packs are directly inserted); at this point a computerised system manages the transfer of the material to the profile preparation plant, to the anodic finishing or painting. Basically the three main treatments: mechanical brushing, sandblasting and polishing, chosen according to the surface characteristics required by the customers. The warehouse also has a picking station which can handle small quantities to complete customer orders. Small batches are put back into the warehouse, but they are already coded by colour and by customer order, according to their needs and are therefore ready for subsequent processing. This was Sepal’s most recent major investment, completing the investment cycle that began in 2013. The Gussago plant is now completely closed and all production and logistics are managed in the Lograto plant where we are today”.
What are the strengths of the new warehouse in brief?
“The classic sore point which must be faced in the design and construction of automatic plants is their rigidity. Basically, if the customer requires raw material and quick delivery, it is normally difficult to extract products from the system which have not completed the expected cycle.
For this reason we have thought of exit ‘bays’ allowing the extraction of raw material. Naturally, the purpose for which the material enters the warehouse is to follow the planned finishing production cycle. But this does not rule out good emergency flexibility. The definite strength of automatic storage in the warehouse lies in the considerable reduction in delivery times. By eliminating intermediate packaging and reducing the handling of profiles, considerable time savings are achieved. In just a few days we can fulfil orders with different finishes. The flexibility offered by this solution is absolute. Another very important and positive peculiarity of this system is the reduced handling of the profiles, a circumstance which eliminates the risks of surface damage due to handling in general, to the advantage of the quality of the extruded profiles”.
What are the main characteristics of your finishing systems?
“Anodizing with hot or cold fixing has an installed power of more than 70,000 Ampere. More specifically, we have a tank dedicated to 25 micron thick finishes with the possibility of certifying the product according to the Clark Test, basically for the building industry. This tank alone requires 25,000 Ampere with adequate refrigeration, in order to be able to cool down the profile bath very well. The coating system is equipped with a double booth, for rapid colour change, static drying chamber and above all in-line brushing, to remove any surface imperfections before the coating process. A further highlight of the painting process is the pre-treatment of ‘flash oxidation’ at 4-5 microns. This treatment can guarantee a filiform corrosion resistance of over 5,000 hours in salt spray. Just to get the picture, the best qualification required today, Seaside, requires 1,200 hours of salt spray resistance”.
Looking at the more general scenario, what are your main reference markets and what future prospects are there?
“I must say that ever since the beginning of its activity, Sepal focused its attention on products, markets and customers interested not in extruded commodities but in those with significant added value. Complex shapes, special finishes, even in small lots, to complete the overall service. Our markets are numerous, from furniture, traditionally our workhorse, to construction and, more in general, to industrial products. In this respect, all recent new investments respond to the logic of raising the standard of product and service quality, not only aluminium profiles but even their surface finish, with high quality levels guaranteed by means of modern process control systems; among other things, we offer finishes with oxide thicknesses up to 25 microns in standard colours, but also with pre-treatments such as scotch brite, chemical glazing, sandblasting, brushing and polishing. After a plan to strengthen the commercial structure, our export market share reached 35% of our turnover in 2019 and is increasing; particularly we have significantly expanded our export quotas to Germany, France and other European countries. As I mentioned before, our investment plan has always favoured the completeness of customer service and in our philosophy the advantages for our customers have always been highly appreciated, not only in terms of the quality of the profiles, with the reduction of disputes over quality and with certified and guaranteed quality standards, but also for the simplification of delivery times. Finally, the installed warehouse fully meets the needs of all our customers”.
How do you assess your position in the aluminium extrusion market today?
“Reasoning objectively, we must refer to the last normal year which was 2019, when we exceeded 20,000 tons of net production, one of the best results ever for Sepal. The current year is obviously completely anomalous, however, despite all the objective difficulties caused by the health emergency, we plan to achieve a satisfactory result again this year, the result of intensive teamwork on the front line, with rapid decisions and interventions”.
How are you reacting to the current Covid emergency?
“Apart from the initial impasse which affected more or less all companies, we can be satisfied with the results. Having introduced all the necessary procedures to safeguard personnel, without underestimating the needs and changes in a constantly evolving market, we were able to face the current situation calmly. The efforts made in these years and the completion of our service with the installation of the new warehouse have definitely contributed to consolidate our overall position. May I conclude with a note of confidence: ours, like many similar companies in our country, is not only a dynamic and agile concern, structured to achieve reasonable and realistic objectives, but it is also a group of men who proved capable of reacting positively to the tremendous shock wave of the pandemic. This is a great source of pride for all those who have been working in the company for years and who have contributed to its healthy and robust growth even in very difficult situations. We are aware that today, more than ever before, we are faced with severe problems of competitiveness both at national and international level, often having to face strong and very ruthless competition, given our past experiences, I trust that we will come out on top this time too”.