Tariff Issues, New Markets, Manufacturing Development, Sustainable Growth

A comprehensive conversation on aluminium with Maurizio Sala, President of Amafond

by Mario Conserva

The Gala Dinner of the Gulf Aluminium Council, held in Oman on March 21st, provided the opportunity for a long conversation with Maurizio Sala, President of Amafond and of Foundry Ecocer, an excellent connoisseur of the aluminium industry and of the Middle East area. This is a time when the market is particularly lively, the issue of US tariffs on aluminium and steel is raising questions and worries, the automotive industry is still a driving force, the foundry world has regained considerable clout, especially regarding the light alloy sector; besides, the metal foundry segment which Maurizio Sala represents is a significant part of Italy’s manufacturing industry which is successful in the metallurgical value chain, an entrepreneurship with the Amafond brand which can compete on international markets with excellent results in the advance sectors of metal machining and of light alloys for the automotive industry, mechanics, electronics, building and construction

Let us begin with one of the hottest topics these days, US tariffs on aluminium and steel enforced by Trump. Even before the
announcement by the US President, a wide range of hypotheses had been aired regarding what could have happened following such
provisions and what should be done to enact the right corrections. We asked Maurizio Sala what his opinions are n he subject.
As a first impression I must say that perhaps there has been too much talk, often enough inappropriate, about the US President’s action, without having ideas and knowledge on the subject. Now we know that Trump’s objective is China and the unbalance brought about in the current global trade system by ruthless trade behaviour shown by China, where everything has been thought of in order to sell at all costs, and certainly not the EU or other countries which over time have tried to create with the WTO a system of somewhat reliable rules. There is no doubt that the Chinese issue exists, but the right way to tackle the problem is not the commercial warfare that Trump decided to wage, probably for electoral reasons, but a greater opening of the markets. Not everyone agrees in this respect, some European industry associations reacted to the first rumours regarding Trump’s tariffs with a somewhat high-strung alarm, and were already willing to demand protective countermeasures to favour European metal producers. They therefore once more showed the old strategy of only looking at the interests of a minority of companies in the basic metallurgy domain, rather than think that the symmetrical protectionistic countermeasures being called for could destroy the competitiveness of all the processing and user segments in the aluminium and steel downstream in Europe.

It is evident that you are looking with great interest at the development of the manufacturing industry and in Italy we have a rather interesting situation in this respect, but we are forced to express our excellence in a variety of segments since the domestic market is still weak. We need to become more global, but the hurdles are still high and it is not easy. Is it the only way to go?
Certainly this is he way to go, I cannot think of any other. The quest for excellence for us is mandatory, since we have to live with a global market where there are players whom we cannot beat when it comes to low-profile standard productions, so all we can do is play the innovation game. We are lucky enough to be able to do this, because we are strong in this respect, with great contents in terms of experience and of technical and managerial knowledge. This is a given fact, suffice it to think of how deeply the foundry sector in Italy changed, and this was a very positive fact, there has been entrepreneurial courage which has led to difficult choices, in some cases traumatic and painful, but in most cases successful and solid. Considering once more our territory, just ten years ago or so nobody would have guessed that the Italian light alloy foundry segment would have taken on a leading role in widely used production technologies for automotive details, such as many structural light alloy castings produced using high and low pressure die casting.

Let us continue to talk about the technological content of the metallurgical system in Italy, especially light alloys: you were in India a few months ago, representing as Amafond’s President the Italian industry of foundry plant technologies, along with Centroal’s President Mauro Cibaldi and important Italian companies manufacturing plants and machines both for aluminium processing and for advanced downstream applications, such as, the railway industry. Given that these operations are definitely positive to open up relationships with new international markets, do you think we can talk about teamwork which could go beyond the innate Italian individualism?
The experience deriving from the relationship with the Indian aluminium association during the recent meeting we had in January was a first constructive step to establish closer relationships between two industrial light metal systems which are so different but just for that also very complementary. It seemed to me to be a significant step, but it is just a first step that must be followed by a shared working program with a well-defined series of concrete projects within a reasonable framework. I shall not mention names, but there are Italian industries with great experience and well rooted in this great country who could become the leaders of projects with broad themes, where an entire network of our companies in the same value chain could be involved. I am thinking of the development of semis and light alloy products for aluminium packaging and for preserving foods, or the production of light rail vehicles, which have been already mentioned during the recent series of meetings. What is important, is to provide continuity to what has been defined, pursuing patiently a scheduled process which needs time to develop, I think especially in the initial phase the role of associations and their capability of promoting a greater interest of the respective governments in such processes will be essential.

As an entrepreneur of this segment, do you consider any other markets to be particularly interesting in the global scenario?
Right now we are having this conversation in Muscat, we are taking part in an event along with the managers of the Gulf’s aluminium industry and their main suppliers and partners: the Middle East is, for instance, an area which should be observed very carefully, and so far I am saying nothing new as everybody knows how important this region is for aluminium. It is however clear that for the Italian companies in this industry this is a special area because the Gulf’s metal is a great resource for processors and end users of light alloys in the EU, so for us it is important not just to establish long-lasting relationships between single companies, but it is necessary to encourage this relationship even between institutions, which is actually what we did by means of the partnership with the Gulf Aluminium Council, so as not to look just at business but also at system strategies. Speaking as an entrepreneur, for several years now my company has opened new lines of business in this area, especially for continuous casting for aluminium rolled products and sheets. I believe in the development of this segment and we increased our capability of taking action on international markets thanks to top level professionals, such as Anthony Tropeano who for many years acted as a ground-breaker at a global level for this specific segment. This is a broad project, where we have been investing for quite some time, we are also carrying out a series of metallurgical studies and researches regarding the treatment of liquid metal and the mechanisms of solidification of different continuous casting alloys, as you can see we inevitably go back to the theme of innovation, which is not just an option at certain levels but an absolute necessity. Even Russia should be the object of great attention, it is another main player in the aluminium world with interesting downstream development potential, during the last Metef we began interesting relationships with the Russian Aluminium Association, RAA and with the great producer, Rusal. We shall therefore definitely take part, as Foundry Ecocer, in the first Russia-Italy Aluminium Forum which will take place during Innoprom in Ekaterinburg in July, and which has been discussed in detail on your magazine by Anton Bazulev, in charge of Rusal’s International Projects. We should also not forget, to conclude, the United States market and the great attention which Amafond dedicates to keep the presence of its associates always active in that part of the world. We shall be present with METEF at Indianapolis at the Congress Show on die casting organized by the American association NADCA on October 15th–17th, where we shall present the state of the art of this segment of foundry which is extraordinarily important for our country.

During this brief conversation we dealt with many points linked with the possibilities of development for the aluminium industry in many segments; how would you conclude in short our meeting?
I believe today the real great objective of our industry is to endeavour in every way to favour the sustainable use of aluminium through technological innovation. Great world economies which we mentioned during this exchange of ideas, such as Russia and India, are looking in this direction, and this has also been done in the past years and is still being one by the Gulf States, great players during the past few decades of the aluminium industry and more. By following this paradigm we shall provide the light metal with a great future; in order to reach this objective it is essential that the downstream industry the real driving force of the metal’s industrial system, will support and uphold the positions of enlightened world producers who do not just think in terms of uncontrolled growth, but look and operate in a framework of a socially sustainable development.