DÜSSELDORF, GERMANY (Nov. 29, 9:35 a.m. EST) — Flush with cash after selling a fiber-optics laboratory earlier this year, automation-systems company Gefran SpA wants to focus its attention on all-electric injection presses.
The Italian company believes the next great frontier for automation is in electric molding machines. Those hot-selling machines currently lag behind their hydraulic counterparts for advanced control systems, said Gefran President Ennio Franceschetti, interviewed Nov. 1 at K 2001 in Dusseldorf.
“It's a priority,” said Franceschetti, speaking through an interpreter. “The molding on electric machines is quiet and clean, and this is exactly what the market asks for. But we need very much to develop automation systems.”
Gefran, based in Provaglio d'Iseo, Italy, is starting work with customers on new automation controls. Gefran, one of the leading global makers of microprocessor control systems for injection presses, plans to use some of that same technology to bridge the gap to electric machines, Franceschetti said.
Funds for research and development should not be a problem, he said. In March, the company sold Gefran Silicon Micro Systems srl, a fiber-optics technology lab in Turin, Italy, for $55 million. The buyer was Palo Alto, Calif.-based Agilent Technologies Inc. The California company plans to develop optical-communications systems for Internet applications using the fiber-optics technology created by Gefran.
Gefran has development plans of its own. The company will invest $4 million annually during the next three years in research and development. Much of that work will involve new controllers and industrial sensors.
The company also wants to expand its U.S. presence. It established a manufacturing base in Winchester, Mass., in 1999 when Gefran purchased Industrial Sensor Inc., a Winchester-based maker of melt-pressure sensors for automation systems.
The purchase of ISI, for $7 million, allowed Gefran to supply a full product mix for its automation systems, Franceschetti said. Before then, the company, traded on the Milan Stock Exchange, had difficulty making its way into America, Franceschetti said.
“American customers must trust you and believe in what you give to them,” he said. “But it is not possible to make mistakes in the American market, especially for an Italian company. Now, we are an American company and have opportunities that we did not have before.”
The company has created a new subsidiary, Gefran ISI Inc. in Winchester, and set up a sales organization there. Gefran currently is evaluating what other products, besides sensors, to produce at the plant.
The company's only other manufacturing facility outside Italy is in Lyon, France. But while worldwide sales for Gefran should remain fairly flat this year at $80 million, the company has much room to grow in North America, Franceschetti said.
The Winchester facility, located outside Boston, has about 50 employees and annual sales of about $7 million, he said.
New products and technology could drive the growth of its North American operations, Franceschetti said. Its turnkey automation systems already are sold in this country on hydraulic injection presses. But the United States is a growing market for electric presses, which need a separate control system. Those electric machines account for about a quarter of the injection machines sold in North America, according to various equipment suppliers.
Several control-system competitors are hot on the trail of developing automation systems to keep up with that growth, Franceschetti said. His company, with an infusion of research dollars, hopes to reach the market early, he said.
“The industry is in need of new ideas now,” Franceschetti said. “There will be a lot of development in this field, with new players and new products. We believe the good ideas will make money, but there is still a lot to do.”