The competitive edge

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Technical paper by:

  • Paolo Zenone,
  • Alessandro Ventura,
  • Marco Benincasa,
  • Dario Beccari

An innovation-oriented approach, structured thought, putting progress and research into practice on a daily basis forges a competitive edge that manifests itself in various ways and contexts. “Sometimes innovation leads down a tortuous path and occasionally what may feel like dead ends turn out to be opportunities for exercising different thoughts which then becomes palpable in our attitude towards work.

“This should be nothing less than a daily workout,” Paolo Zenone talking about how Meccanotecnica Umbra (MTU) found itself developing “a product for concentrated solar plants, where the standard application deploys oil.” A few years ago, Nobel Prize winner Carlo Rubbia came up with the idea of using molten salt instead of oil, thus improving the efficiency of this type of plants.

We followed this theory and a few years later developed a product; we were the only ones in the world. Ironically, we arrived with our product, but the relative market never developed, proving how molten salt solar plants suffer problems which have prevented them from becoming widespread. There is only one in the world, under construction in China. And so, then old oil-based technology is still the main one. We innovated, but we designed an unusable product. If things ever take off for this market, we will be the first!

It was still an investment that enabled us to venture beyond our known technological ground; it modified our work habits and inspired us to think out of the box. We are good at working with water, but when it comes to molten salt salts (a highly corrosive fluid with temperatures above 500 °C and pressures in excess of 20 bars), this digression was an excellent challenge, a great workout that encouraged us to venture beyond our comfort zone.

Sealing solution for solar power plants

Sometimes innovation does not follow the market, it precedes it. “When the company succeeds in adapting itself, or where full product maturity is encountered, that is where the full instinct for survival emerges,” Alessandro Ventura explains. “This is what is happening with the electrification process of the Automotive industry: initially this path may have led us to believe that mechanical seal for the cooling system in electric engines was no longer necessary. The truth of the matter is that different electric engines are fitted with different cooling systems and wherever you need to cool, a mechanical seal is required. The characteristics of this product, in terms of performance and size, are completely different from our standards, but while working on the development of new seals we realised that cooling circuits in electric engines were multiplying: what initially looked like a problem turned out to be an opportunity. We understood that what we saw as the end of the world we knew it was actually the start of a new era: a company’s ability is to be ready to keep apace with these evolutionary leaps, without ever losing sight of all the product’s potential innovations. Because in approaching a new industry, just like in this case, each manufacturer interprets the product in their own way, in the absence of possible benchmarks. Another positive note is that our products are markedly different and are positioning themselves as a cut above those of competitors.”

Even in special situations, in historic and social terms, like in Brazil at the moment for example, working on innovation is necessary: “This means hope in recovery and survival which translates into a future advantage. Innovation is also a matter of attitude, frame of mind, predisposition or preparation,” Dario Beccari tells. “A way of finding ourselves ready and waiting in pole position when the national economy finally restarts.”

“After all, the story of MTU is one of continuous evolution and innovation,” Marco Benincasa states. “We must continue with research: into base technologies, commercial and manufacturing alliances, in order to find contexts requiring specific knowledge, in high technological content industries where low-cost competition is lower. Manifold processes are under way: this really is a rewarding system.”

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