Which are the automotive industry trends? Which direction is the automotive sector taking? What developments should we expect in the near future?
We talked about it with Massimo Cecchini, CEO and Managing Director of STR Automotive, who told us the story of his Company and the long collaboration with Cannon
Technology has radically transformed people’s lives. Smartphone has even changed the way each of us relates to the outside world, raising the concept of “ease” to a fundamental value to be pursued: everything must be easily accessible (or achievable), easy to use, easy to manage.
The adoption of this concept by the automotive industry has led to a profound rethinking of its products.
In this way, the car of the future, besides being electric (and therefore less polluting, both in terms of emissions and noise), will be autonomous driving thanks to the development of artificial intelligence and machine learning, and will not require the human intervention even in situations of intense traffic; it will be more accessible, because it will no longer be necessary to obtain a driving license to drive them; it will be fully connected with the users, with the internet and with the other vehicles, making possible an infinite series of services, enjoyable during the journey.
We talked about this and much more with Massimo Cecchini, CEO and Managing Director of STR Automotive, a Pesaro-based company founded in 2002 by Vittorio Strapazzini, which make polyurethane car components.
Cannon: The automotive market is rapidly evolving: technology has imposed a profound rethinking of the “user experience”, and, consequently, of the cars themselves and their components. In your opinion, what are the prospects for this sector?
Massimo Cecchini: The analysis of the automotive market is complex, if you want to do it in depth.
In general, the horizon of self-driving vehicles is getting closer. The technology, linked to our electronic tools, allows us to create always new networks and new habits. Electronics is traveling at an impressive speed: projects started six months ago, today are already outdated. In just six months!
Thanks to the evolution of the on-board sensors, in a very short time the autonomous driving will significantly reduce the possibility of collisions. So, the exterior cladding of the cars will change logic: it will continue to exist, obviously, but it will have different functions, beside their contribution in aerodynamic terms, they might just have to protect passengers from wind and rain.
C: And the materials used for car components? How will they follow these new trends?
MC: Beyond the concrete developments in the automotive industry, we believe that the common denominator is – and will be – the efficient use of energy: in order to pursue this target, vehicles must necessarily have reduced masses and, therefore, light components.
The research is aimed at developing new technologies able to manage lightweight plastics or composites. Graphene, for example, is the only material in the world that has the thickness of an atom and an incredible conductivity, resistance and transparency features. Potentially, it could be used in automotive sector.
In the current logic of change, even natural fibers, which do not seem suitable for automotive exteriors, must be taken into consideration.
C: Natural fibers are a very interesting topic. Have you already tried to process them in STR?
MC: Yes, we have already tested natural fibers that, impregnated with certain type of resins, have a very low degree of moisture absorption, almost equivalent to the plastics’ ones. A problem, humidity, which therefore seems potentially surmountable.
C: So, you are also looking for solutions out from the sphere closely linked to polyurethane…
MC: We are also looking outside of polyurethane components because we are convinced that if we became the defenders, at all costs, of few technologies, we would risk not to be ready to face the challenges which the automotive market, in an impartial and objective manner, offers to us.
C: Research and innovation, investigating new materials and experimentation have always been an important part of STR’s soul. Even in the use of polyurethane in the Italian automotive sector, you have been pioneers…
MC: Let’s say that we were the first to realize that the more the polyurethane formulations are of the amine type, the better the performance and surface quality of car components are. At the end of 2003, beginning of 2004, in collaboration with Dow Chemical and with Bayer, we tested the first real amine-formulations, which were almost polyureas.
We proposed these new formulations to car manufacturer Fiat, our main customer at that time; the client that had never used this type of technology before, was deeply impressed. Then, we won a contract on a Panda 4×4 set-up: the result was a great success!
C: At that time, Fiat Panda was being produced in Poland, right?
MC: Exactly, and we supplied directly the Polish factory, which had high quality requirements: just think that it won 11 times the title of best establishment in Europe in the World Class Manufacturing classification system.
Measuring ourselves against such a performing factory was really hard but we improved our organization to comply to such high standards, it was really a matter of survival!
That experience made us grow and now we pursue excellence in all our activities.
C: What happened after the first experience with Fiat?
MC: In 2007 we were entrusted with the production of a large part of the Alfa Romeo 8C interior and exterior parts, both saloon and cabrio. Then we managed to take a very important order: the Maserati Coupé GT rocker panel cover, used on 100% of the cars. In other words, all the Maserati of that series have a STR polyurethane rocker panel cover.
The following year we start a collaboration also with BASF and we took the first order for the production of the bumper of the first all-polyurethane Maserati, Maserati 145 Trofeo, and, at the same time, we managed to get into Ferrari and take the first order: the supply of Ferrari FF (Four Four) bumpers, the first four smart drive wheels of the prancing horse. This order was followed by other supplies for Maserati (for 145 GT, sports version four-door, Ghibli sports version, Levante sports version) and for Ferrari (458 special, 812 superfast and Portofino, 164, 142 mvs).
In the meantime, the models derived by the Fiat 500 were also approaching this polyurethane technology, such as the special Abarth versions, of which we have completely set up the exteriors.
C: An important growth, therefore, that led you to work with the most important car manufacturers. Which effects has this growth had on your production?
MC: At the beginning, only a few units (around 40/50 pieces) were produced per day. If we consider important body parts, like bumpers, the company today makes around 200/250 pieces a day; adding rocker panel covers, external components, internal components (such as reinforcements or frames), we reach a total production of about 1000 pieces a day, printed and painted.
We transform polyurethane, from the raw material to the finished product. Concerning carbon fibre and thermoplastic material, we manage “class A” finishing: painting and assembly.
C: You have verticalized many processes, bringing them into your production plants…
MC: Yes, starting from the choice of the raw materials, to the moulding process of the plastics, to their preparation and painting, to the assembly and the final release, everything is internally managed.
Also the project start-up phase with the customer has been verticalized: our technical department interfaces with the client’s company to develop the feasibility study and the engineering phase. At this point, concepts, equipment and testing are established: starting from the style model, we develop the project, design the equipment, build it and start the production process.
C: Why are you managing most of all the production phases internally?
MC: At STR automotive, we strongly believe that mastering the key processes – with high difficulty coefficients in technological terms – is a guarantee that can be given to the market. In other words, we want to have the control and the responsibility of a part of the process that, if left outside, can potentially give qualitative and quantitative discontinuity to the customer’s assembly lines.
For a customer a qualitative disturbance is important because it compromises the product image or reliability; a quantitative disturbance is devastating as it impacts enormously on its production speed.
For this reason, we have decided to invest in the verticalization of complex production processes: we want to be a technological partner able to dialogue with the customer, guaranteeing total continuity, both in terms of quality and quantity.
C: The relationship with Cannon is a long-lasting one: since the 1990s, to the Strapazzini Group, led by Vittorio Strapazzini, Cannon has been supplying machines, mixing heads and plants to process polyurethane. Together we also made the first tests with InterWet technology and with other technologies that were experimented at the time. How did this collaboration develop?
MC: Thanks to Vittorio’s experience, also STR started with equipment supplied by Cannon. Currently we have several Cannon automotive plants , three dosing units for highly reactive RRIM formulations [HE Booster], six mixing heads [RIM] and a press.
I want to emphasize, however, that Cannon is not chosen today because of a long acquaintance; Cannon offers a good product and a good service: the machines to process polyurethane are reliable, flexible and precise, and perfectly meet our production needs. So, in addition to the historical relationship which has given us satisfaction, there is Cannon market leadership for the plastic processing technologies.
C: At the end of 2018 Cannon provided you a new polyurethane foaming plant, does it respond effectively to your needs?
MC: Yes, of course. First of all, we needed a system with a greater capacity than the others we already have, furthermore, we wanted this system to be also flexible, able to handle different materials with different fillers. Cannon responded perfectly to these requests and the new machine is even more precise in terms of dosing and ratio setting.
Cannon machines and equipment allowed us to save raw material, to considerably reduce the margins of tolerance of the finished piece and to manufacture products of the highest quality on the market.