Clean ceramics, with filters and magnets
The truck turns off the Via Emilia and drives straight into the yard. It tips the sand compounds and processing waste directly onto a belt running along two parallel rows of silos. On the belt, a long “separator” bar – nicknamed “the knife” – deflects each mixture precisely into the respective silo. This happens every 3 hours, from Monday to Friday. No hands. The whole thing is automated, programmed to run in advance.
And thus the “life” of a 4.0 tile begins in a factory in the ceramic district in Sassuolo. We are here at the ltalcer factory in Rubiera which, like all ceramics factories, works on 3 shifts of 8 hours each. With 26 staff on each shift, 18,000 square metres of ceramics are produced every day.
The district in Sassuolo has never stopped innovating. The combination of Industry 4.0, line digitisation, predictive analysis of the “state of health” of machinery, increasingly sophisticated odour and noise filtering systems, have all significantly improved the quality of productive environments and above all safety at work in just a few years.
In 2018 alone – Confindustria Ceramica data – investments were made worth 508.2 million EUR, almost 10% of the segment’s turnover. This value has allowed the whole industry to reach 2 billion EUR in the five-year period. A huge effort, facilitated by the tax incentives of Industry 4.0 for factory modernisation, which the ceramic tile segment has taken advantage of more than other Italian industrial sectors, aiming to recover competitive performance by exploiting more advanced technologies.
And indeed, from the quality control station – almost like a videogame – we can see the procurement process and perform sample checks on the quality and strength of the materials.
The 4 presses, 2 kilns and 4 glazing lines are interconnected. Each one is equipped with “totems”, control panels used to programme the weekly activities. Because in production, different collections are packaged every day. Each one is different, in the composition of its materials, sizes, design and colours (which come from the digital printers connected to the plants).
Leaving the kiln (which reaches 1200°C but cools them to 90°C) the loads are picked directly by the magnetically guided shuttles, programmed to place them in a set order. With “anti-fall” systems, they stop in front of any obstacle. And the machinery is also automatically blocked if the protective access gates are opened.
“Here, the difference is being made above all by green investments in sustainability,” explains Graziano Verdi, CEO of the ltalcer Group, founded in 2017 on an idea by Verdi and Alberto Forchielli, economist and founder of Mandarin Capital Partners. Today the Group – with a turnover of over 200 million EUR and almost 580 staff – includes the brands Elios Ceramica, La Fabbrica Ceramiche, Ceramica Rondine, Devon&Devon and Bottega.
“So far,” Verdi underlines, “we have invested 20 million EU in Industry 4.0 for Rondine and Elios alone. In the next three years we expect to invest at least 10 million EUR a year. Since September a high-tech post-combustion plant has been up and running (worth 1 million EUR) which totally eliminates odour emissions. And not only that. We have technology that allows us to recycle up to 60% of our processing waste, reconverting it into reusable raw material. In fact, today over 90% of the waste material we recycle comes from other companies in the local area.”
Currently the Italcer Corporate Academy is being officially launched, to train new (junior and senior) figures to recruit and to ensure continuing vocational training for employees, including training in the new machinery and the required work safety standards.
According to the data issued by the Modena health service, the accident rate (per 1000 staff), in the ceramic sector, fell from 88.1 in 2000-2002 to 44.4 in the three-year period 2015-2017. Again in this segment, reports of occupational diseases fell from 280 in 2007 to 72 in 2018.
“ln terms of safety, this sector has made huge steps forwards,” explained Maritria Coi, General Secretary of Filctem Cgil for Emilia Romagna. “The problems concern above all hypoacusis, total or partial loss of hearing, as well as musculoskeletal disorders. In the past, dermatitis and contact diseases linked to dyes and chemical substances, as well as respiratory problems caused by the inhalation of fumes and dusts, were also very important. And not only that. In 2020 the EU directive fighting potentially carcinogenic crystalline silica comes into force. Italy has still not transposed the directive. But companies are showing themselves to be well prepared.”
CEO of the Italcer Group, founded in 2017 on an idea by Verdi and Alberto Forchielli, economist and founder of Mandarin Capital Partners. The Group has a turnover of over 200 million EUR, and 580 staff.
From our reporter