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The composite material industry in Italy: achievements and perspectives

News International-French

28 Feb 2011

The use of structural composite materials has expanded in almost every engineering application sector over the past 25 years, due to the fact that they are lightweight, rigid, strong, easy to shape, and damage tolerant. More recently, new features have been emerging which open new application scenarios for the future: composite materials can be functionalized in completely new ways, making them electrically conductive, magnetic and piezoelectric so they can then be made “smart”. Nanofillers, sensors and actuators can easily be embedded into the microstructure of the material so as to produce self-monitoring and/or self-repairing structures.

(published on April 2010 - JEC Magazine #56)


Such a rapid development in high-tech applications for composite materials is challenging the industry because it requires highly-skilled workers in addition to flexible, costeffective production and assembly lines. The Italian composite industry has a leading edge in the global market competition thanks to all these characteristics. An overview of some achievements and future growth prospects is presented in this article.


The Italian composite market

Composite materials in Italy are mainly used in the following industrial sectors: aerospace, transportation, industrial applications, boats, and construction. However, the size and geographical distribution of theses sectors differ greatly, as shown by the examples in Figure 1. Other emerging sectors such as interior design, sports and bioengineering are also present.


The market is currently undergoing a rapid transformation due to the global financial crisis: low-tech, high-volume production is generally moved to developing countries while companies are being sized down. Activities unrelated to the core businesses are increasingly outsourced, very often to former employees who start a new entrepreneurial activity, thus adding flexibility and competitiveness to the market. Transportation and energy applications are foreseen to be very promising sectors, also thanks to public financing. At the same time, boatbuilders are facing a very intense restructuring period at present. Composite applications for the rehabilitation and/or upgrading of existing buildings and infrastructures have started to grow steadily, thanks to recent improvements in the national legislation which will be briefly presented in the next section.



The current geographical distribution and activities of the Assocompositi members (Fig. 2) reflects the current dynamics of the Italian market, mainly located in the northern and central parts of the country. However, very dynamic SMEs from southern Italy are progressively making their way onto the high-tech application scene, due to both aerospace activities and public financing. These SMEs are playing an increasingly leading role in innovation.



The aerospace sector is currently leading the way in innovation for the use of carbon-fibre reinforced composites. The Italian public aerospace company Alenia is supplying parts for the new allcomposite commercial airplane Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It is providing two fuselage sections up to 15 m in length and the 11-m long horizontal stabilizers. The parts account for about 14% of the entire structure and are produced in modern plants located in southern Italy. Alenia is using a range of innovative technologies for these parts, some of which have been patented. The finished parts are loaded into the 747 Dreamlifter airplane (Fig. 3) and delivered to the Boeing final assembly line in Seattle. Alenia is also manufacturing composite parts for Airbus and several other military and commercial aircraft manufacturers worldwide using either conventional autoclave curing or innovative AFP and resin infusion processes.



In the transportation sector, the use of advanced materials is mainly limited to racing cars and motorcycles. All major Italian sport carmakers make widespread use of advanced composites. Several car part makers, located in the automotive districts in northern and central Italy, are also producing all-composite body parts and frames for customers worldwide in both the car and motorcycle industries. Companies are also cooperating with toplevel academic research centres to model the long-term and impact behaviour of composite primary structures.


Italian companies in the automotive sector are also developing innovative technologies for the mass production of structural and semi-structural parts made of glass or natural fibres. The use of DLFT for the production of long-fibre-reinforced thermoplastics, for example, eliminates the semi-finished product stage, delivering cost-effectiveness and high flexibility to the industrial process (Fig. 4).


Italian companies are also leaders in the fabrication of composite profiles and body parts for trains, and top manufacturers of highperformance carbon and ceramic composite brakes.


In the building and construction sector, the use of composite materials has been expanding thanks to very active cooperation between national universities and research centres. Such collaborative efforts have led to the publication of a series of technical recommendations for the rehabilitation of existing structures in concrete, masonry, wood and steel using composite materials for both external and internal strengthening. The recommendations for external strengthening, originally published by the National Research Council (CNR) in 2004, were recently incorporated into the National Technical Specifications for Construction, a document issued in 2008 by the Ministry of Infrastructures, which issues national standard procedures for the design and construction of civil structures. This major step has made composite materials available for a large number of different applications in building restoration and consolidation. Composite materials are currently being adopted in the region of L’Aquila which was struck by a devastating earthquake in 2009. Some examples of damaged column and beam strengthening are shown in Fig. 5. The Italian Research Council is currently involved in the drafting of material and application qualification procedures in order to ensure that composite materials are properly selected and used in all practical situations.



Finally, the Italian nautical industry has a world-leading position in both pleasure and racing yacht building. Despite the severe financial crisis, causing orders to drop by 30% last year, Italian boat builders are still coming out with very innovative projects. One of the most interesting examples is WHY, an innovative 58 metrelong, 38 metre-wide yacht developed by a joint-venture between Hermès and Wally Yacht. WHY was presented in September 2009 in the Ancona shipyard. The unusual size of this luxury yacht accommodates for several new features including several deck patio interiors with natural light, photovoltaic panels resembling Venetian blinds on the glass hull sides and the roof opening, a 25 metre-long front end swimming pool, and a 36-metre aft deck beach, as well as a low environmental impact (Fig. 6).



Future perspectives

The Italian composite community is actively involved in national and international innovation and research projects for developing new materials, technologies and final applications in many different industrial sectors. Most of the future key issues (renewable energy and resources, environmental protection, nanotechnologies, life sciences, etc.) are answered by composite material characteristics and this potential is being exploited.


The leading research trends from both universities and applied research centres appear to be focused on structural applications for thermoplastics, non-autoclave technologies for thermosets, and “smart” materials with multifunctional and self-monitoring characteristics. Other topics concern the use of auxetic materials to improve the compression and impact behaviour of sandwich structures, as well as the development of new functional hybrid materials using shape-memory alloys. Significant research is also being devoted to fibres and resins from renewable sources, more efficient processes for end-of-life recycling of existing components, and new design strategies to reduce the environmental impact of composites.


Raw materials and prepregs

Raw material producers are continuously developing new products. The main Italian glass fibre manufacturer is producing a new generation of wet-use chopped strand reinforcements that help improve production rates for gypsum processes. The manufacturer is also paying a great deal of attention to environmental issues and indoor air quality for its products. Resin producers are increasingly more concerned with emission control to comply with European regulations. They are also working to improve the fire and thermal resistance of their resins. The use of hollow microspheres and/or nanofillers and nanotubes is also foreseen for improving flow, abrasion resistance, fracture toughness and electrical properties. Composite textile innovation by Italian companies is largely based on the development of a wide range of multiaxial non-woven reinforcements with improved conformability and flexibility, as well as the use of natural fibres. Increasing attention is also paid to alkaliresistant glass fibre nets with a special mesh that can be used with mortars for consolidating masonry walls. Furthermore, open-mesh glass fibre fabrics for specific end–uses are available in the market. New plasma treatments are also developed to improve the wettability of textiles and their adhesion to the resin. Electrically-conductive fibres produced by chemical vapour deposition (CVD) of nickel and other metallic materials are finding new applications in composite materials for electromagnetic shielding. Prepreg innovation is mainly associated with processing. A recently-developed technology based on a strip of pliable prepreg allows the laminate edges to be sealed, thus eliminating sharp edges and finishing (trimming) operations. Another major issue is the development of specific formulations that offer longer shelf lives at room temperature. The composite superstructure concept also allows the rapid fabrication of lightweight sandwich structures with a high level of fire protection and controlled adhesion of the two skins to prevent delamination.


Design and processing

Innovation trends are based on CAD procedures and automated processes, which reduce the number of steps, production cycle times, and raw material consumption. New vacuum bagging film materials with a “cracked ice” pattern allow rapid air removal without requiring a breather. Computer-assisted CAD-CAE systems are used for the automatic optimization of layup sequences, while component shapes are available in the market to speed up design and fabrication procedures, thus reducing the time-to-market for new applications and the number of physical prototypes needed throughout the process. Several manufacturers of autoclaves, tools, moulds and special insert components offer a wide range of products and machines for the composite manufacturing chain.



JEC Composites Magazine: What is the stature of Assocompositi today on the composites market in Italy?

PR. FRASSINE: The association was formed five years ago, and we have witnessed a growing interest on the part of companies and other associations in the sector, in particular from rubber and plastics converters. Two years ago, with over 50 member companies already to our name, we decided to join the Italian Rubber & Plastics Federation (Federazione Gomma Plastica), allowing us to offer far more services to our members and providing us with far better stability in the face of market vicissitudes. Since the Federation is a body of the Italian industrial association (Confindustria), this also gives us the opportunity to participate in major national industrial innovation projects and initiate lobbying actions to protect the interests of the sector in the face of competition from other materials.


Today, we can safely say that Assocompositi has become a benchmark on the Italian composites market for all companies, associations and research institutions.


JCM: Do you have any specific ambitions in terms of how you represent the composites sector?

PR. FRASSINE: Most of the members of Assocompositi are currently concentrated in the north of Italy. They essentially comprise raw materials producers and converters, but also include manufacturers of ancillary processing equipment and end users. We can also count on collaboration with research centres and universities. The sectors that are most represented include construction, transport and industrial applications.


Since our membership is not completely representative of the national market situation, we decided this year to launch a promotion campaign in order to extend the presence of the association both geographically and across the industrial sectors. As far as the latter are concerned, we are hoping to add to the list of our members companies from the aerospace, marine and energy sectors, which for the moment are under-represented. Another objective is to increase the number of equipment manufacturer and end user members.


JCM: What are the priority actions directed towards your members?

PR. FRASSINE: In recent years, most of our initiatives have targeted the promotion of the image and the applications of composites, and have involved organising seminars, training courses and practical demonstrations of technologies, as well as participation in national and international trade fairs. We also represent Italy at European level, in the framework of the EuCIA, in supporting all initiatives designed to protect the composites market in the European Union. At the request of our members, we also undertake specific actions in each industrial sector. For example, we have just published a report on composite material acceptance testing in the refurbishment of structures on construction sites, and we are currently finishing off another report on glass fibre pipe welding. Upcoming publications will deal with the certification of construction materials and the classification of composite materials.


JCM: Do you act as a facilitator between the academic world and industry?

PR. FRASSINE: From the beginning, the Board members of the Association have been drawn in equal parts from the industrial and from the academic world. This allows us to balance perfectly these two aspects and to facilitate relations between industry and the universities, which were always somewhat fraught in the past. The results are already plain to see, with the joint participation of companies and universities in numerous applied research and industrial innovation projects. The Association also facilitates direct contact between members and research centres for the resolution of miscellaneous industrial problems.


JCM: What is your Association’s position on the European stage?

PR. FRASSINE: Assocompositi is a member of EuCIA, the European Composites Industry Association, itself a part of EuPC, the European Plastics Converters Association. The Italian Rubber & Plastics Federation, to which Assocompositi belongs, is also a member of EuPC. This raises a number of role interpretation issues for each association, but also guarantees that the composites market maintains a high profile on the European stage.


JCM: Are any of your actions directed at the user markets?

PR. FRASSINE: For a number of years we have been trying to establish permanent collaborations with the various event organisers in Italy, with the emphasis on proximity to the major industrial centres. For example, in the marine sector, we have taken part in several editions of the Seatec Expo via seminars and practical demonstrations of technologies, and in the transport sector we now take part in the Affidabilità & Tecnologie trade fair in Turin. Our main goal is to present composites as modern, high-performance, eco-friendly materials that can offer solutions which are also economically attractive. From a more "technical" point of view, we also facilitate the creation of working groups to look into specific problems in cooperation with national and academic institutions. We are currently working on a project designed to offer all our members the chance to meet for two or three days every year at a kind of national conference in order to discuss the problems facing the sector both nationally and internationally. This could also become an excellent opportunity for honing the definition of the Association's strategies over the medium and long-term.


JCM: What are your lines of development for 2010?

PR. FRASSINE: The international economic situation forces us to focus intently on the market and to encourage any initiatives that may open up new opportunities for our members or else consolidate, from a technical point of view, the results obtained. To this end, we shall continue to work on promoting the image of composites and on participating in national and international trade events. Our two new lines of development will be to increase our membership numbers, extend our representation nationally and closely monitor market and legislation in order to protect the image and competitiveness of Italian composites.


Final products

Due to the current market situation, companies are moving away from conventional, low-tech production and are looking for new, high-tech applications. The process is still ongoing and not all companies are ready for new markets which may require fresh investment. Furnishing, design and industrial automation applications appear to be rapidly developing sectors. New technologies, or different combinations of the existing ones, are emerging to meet the requirements for more complex shapes at lower costs and very strict tolerances. The process of substituting more conventional materials with composites is being accelerated by the opportunity to functionalize them with embedded sensors and actuators, giving rise to a totally new range of applications in the aerospace, transportation and marine sectors. Wind power generation is also becoming an interesting business for Italian companies, thanks to public investment, not to mention the peculiar geographic and atmospheric characteristics of the country, where big turbines developed for high-speed, continuous winds are not particularly attractive.



The Italian composite market is facing the international financial crisis by reacting instead of complaining. Various new products and applications have emerged, which indicates that this industrial sector still believes innovation to be one of the most powerful tools for making composite materials more attractive to customers.


The innovation trends focus on biomaterials, automation, material functionalization and environmental compatibility. However, achieving real competitiveness in the global market will require scientific research and industrial development strategies, together with better integration of public funding, which needs to be adequate and prompt. This is not always the case and companies are quite often left alone to face the market challenges. Research institutions and national associations are trying to bridge the gap by setting up new cooperative standards to exploit the common heritage of creativity, skills and product quality, which are the key to the worldwide success of the “Made in Italy” brand in different sectors.