Tecnomeccanica, Aluminium and Magnesium for Next-Generation Headlamps

An interview with Simone Ferrucci, who for almost two years now has been the CEO of Tecnomeccanica, following the sale of the company by the Agradi family to a pool of investors including Mr Ferrucci himself. The new owners invest in aluminium foundry and experiment with magnesium castings for ultra-light LED heat sinks.

By Giuseppe Giordano

Tecnomeccanica is now a company controlled by the IDeA Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Development private equity fund, specializing in the environmental sustainability segment and managed by DeA Capital Alternative Funds, a company within the De Agostini group. Recently its CEO Simone Ferrucci was a guest speaker at a round table organized by AMAFOND within the framework of the Association’s 2018 assembly. On the occasion Mr Ferrucci described his experience during the early days of the management of a company based on the production of complex die cast aluminium details. Such products, especially reflectors for traditional headlamps and heat sinks for LED lamps, are meant for applications for all sorts of vehicles. The company is therefore highly involved in matters which concern the automotive industry, a complex and competitive industrial sector but at the same time a rewarding one for those companies which are able to interpret its requirements and development trends. We found it very interesting to deepen the analysis of the experiences of a young manager leading a medium sized company, which supplies important details for the design and even for the security of many high-end car models in Europe and we started off with the new image which the company is conveying, starting from the new website whose home page opens with sharp clarity: “Tecnomeccanica S.p.A. is an Italian foundry, specialized in the production of high-precision aluminium die cast parts …”

Let us take the cue from the above-mentioned change to ask whether this means that foundry technology in all its aspects, from know-how to machinery, is considered the heart of the company and that being Italian is an important value.
The sentence conveys clearly what we are and would like to carry on being. Tecnomeccanica is a company committed exclusively to the vehicle lighting segment, which today requires products with die cast metal parts with minimum wall thickness, very narrow geometric allowances and absence of pores, which may only be achieved in a foundry equipped with modern and highly productive machines. The foundry is the heart of the company and it must operate following strict rules capable of guaranteeing the uniformity of a product such as car headlamps which come in an exceptional variety of types and models. Underlining that we are an Italian company is important in a globalized sector such as the automotive component industry, where Tecnomeccanica, along with many other foundries and the Italian system of product and machinery supply, showcases the high level of our industrial culture.
Ever since the acquisition of Tecnomeccanica by the group which I represent, the maximum investment efforts have been concentrated on foundry, with the acquisition of new machinery and the increase of the processing techniques for liquid metal. Besides, control capabilities have been improved, with the start of the upgrade to the higher standards of the Quality Control laboratory.

May the upgrade process of the foundry and of the quality controls be considered complete?
No, on the contrary, two very important investments are ongoing, even though the degree of completion is different. The first is about to be completed. It concerns the installation of a medium-sized smelting furnace capable of feeding more casting centres, currently fed by more smaller furnaces. The aim is of course that of having the “same” metal in different machines. The absence of a centralized smelting furnace implies the risk of the finished products not having uniform properties.
The second investment is strategic and it stems from a demand on the clients’ part. LED lighting systems with metal heat sinks and mechanical systems which allow to direct the light beams of cars lead to an increase in the headlamp’s weight. To limit this increase and to lightweight the different metal parts, the cast aluminium parts may be replaced by similar magnesium parts. Magnesium foundry techniques are different from aluminium, starting with the flammability of the lighter metal. For this reason the foundry and the die casting machines for magnesium will be placed in a wing of the plant separate from the main foundry.

In the production of reflectors, foundry operations were followed by coating and metallization on very sophisticated plants. With LED technology these operations are no longer necessary. Will these finishing operations disappear from your production lines?
LED technology transformed the vehicle headlamp sector but it still does not apply to all car models. There are even very recent models which do not use 100% LED lighting. On commercial vehicles replacement of reflectors is much slower than on cars. Coating and metallization will still be necessary. Besides they could have a very strong comeback if Tecnomeccanica were to decide to enter the segment of headlamps with plastic details, which is much faster than the metal headlamp segment and has applications even outside the automotive industry.

The investments described above project the image of a company which can still grow along internal lines. Which are your future strategies?
Ever since the ownership change, corporate revenues grew to almost reach 20 million euro in 2017. At the end of the same year employees were 133, five more than in the previous year. 2018 will show further growth. The owners also thought fit to pursue growth along external lines and last June Mea Srl was purchased from the Olsa industrial group. The company, based in Moncalieri (near Turin), has been operating for the past 35 years in the design and manufacture of dies and in the production of small die cast metal items; among them, the electrical contacts of headlamps. The two companies have a complementary product portfolio which allows to face the market with a very interesting and competitive offer, we are reasonably optimistic and foresee for 2019 overall revenues of around 27 million euro per year.

I would now like to ask you for information regarding the envisaged consumption of aluminium and, above all, whether there has been an evolution in supplies following research on new alloys and on a higher quality level
The aluminium consumption forecast for 2018 is about 1,500 tons with an increase of 13% with respect to the previous year. The plan for metal consumption foresees 10, 8 and 7% increases during the next three years reaching about 2,000 tons per year in 2022.
Quality, mechanical properties and corrosion resistance of the various alloys are very important. We went from a mix in 2016 where alloy 46100 represented 90% of consumption, with 47100 at 7% and 44300 at just 3%, to 2018 where both 46100 and 44300 are at 45% and 47100 is at 10%. Next year we should reach 50% with 44300, 30% with 47100 and 20% with 46100. This evolution is linked to the development of LED projects: the aim is the war on corrosion implied by high performance projects. From a metallurgical standpoint, corrosion resistance is linked to the presence of various copper contents in the different alloys, going from at least 1.5% in 46100 to 0.08% in 44300. Actually we already developed even more stringent projects using 4200 alloy which will lead to serialized production as from 2020. The alloy then must be completed by surface treatments, which are anodic oxidation and cataphoresis and/or coating; all of this guarantees the “strength” of the projects and the assurance that there will be no corrosion during the working life span of each car.

I would like you to tell us something more about the reasons behind the insertion of magnesium in your production processes
For products which are typically magnesium based we added a new product line called “frames”. These are the “structural frameworks” of the headlamp and their size is remarkable if you consider upper bracket cars (such as, Mercedes E-S series, BMW 5-7, SUVs, etc.).To begin with these were made out of plastic material, but following weight increase due to new technologies and vibration resistance tests, new projects are starting to involve aluminium (where Tecnomeccanica is already present) but with a trend towards magnesium on account of the possibility of using a metal with a lower specific weight with respect to aluminium (Al = 2.7 g/cm3 vs Mg = 1.7 g/cm3). Besides, it is very important to be able to produce die cast parts using this metal with walls of reduced thickness with respect to aluminium (aluminium: 1.2-1.5 mm minimum; magnesium: 0.8 mm minimum). These aspects, which are fundamental for our clients, drive innovation at Tecnomeccanica.