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Campania: Aerospace cluster draws strength from its historic roots

December 17, 2009

by Guy Dinmore in Capua

Published: December 17 2009

Situated against a backdrop of volcanic mountains on the historic road linking imperial Rome to the south, the Italian Aerospace Research Centre (Cira) is drawing to Campania international clients, including China’s ambitious space programme.

Chinese scientists have been testing materials in Cira’s plasma wind tunnel, the most sophisticated and powerful of its kind in the world. Simulating re-entry conditions with temperatures reaching 10,000 degrees centigrade, the tunnel uses 70 megawatts of electricity, enough to power a whole town.

Enrico Saggese, president of Cira and also of the Italian Space Agency, believes the tests are linked to shuttles to be used in China’s space station programme. “But we are not quite sure,” he adds diplomatically.

Few Italians outside the business even know of Cira’s existence, yet the national research centre is a key element of Italy’s wide-ranging aeronautical sector, which is heavily concentrated in Campania, forming a cluster with academia and industry.

Two universities in Naples, Federico II and La Seconda Università, have aeronautical engineering faculties, providing a future workforce – although in current depressed conditions many graduates are having to look for jobs outside the region, adding to the migrating pool of talent that has become a national challenge for Italy.

Cira’s assets are all state-owned and the national and regional governments are controlling shareholders through state agencies, guaranteeing constant flows of research money for the non-profit organisation. Income also comes from the European Space Agency and other clients, including Italian companies with minority shareholdings.

In a giant hangar next to the plasma facility, Cira has built the world’s most sophisticated icing wind tunnel that specialises in recreating the rare and extreme conditions of large ice particles that have caused two civilian air disasters in Italy and the US. The Lockheed Joint Strike Fighter and Airbus have tested their de-icing systems there.

The complex also has a sophisticated crash testing facility that is used to simulate various kinds of surfaces, even that of Mars for the European Space Agency using airbags for landings designed by Milan’s Politecnico university. Other research projects include Italy’s future air navigation system, and development of an unmanned, high altitude research flying laboratory.

As well as the Chinese, current collaboration also involves the US space agency Nasa and Japan’s National Space Development Agency. Future projects include research into future “green” orbiting systems using liquid oxygen and methane.

An industrial area next door to Cira is home to a very different but typically Italian enterprise – Tecnam, a private, family-run maker of light sports aircraft with a worldwide following.

Founded in the wake of the second world war by the local Pascale brothers, Tecnam has stuck to its roots in Campania, although Amedeo Fogliano, chief financial officer, admits it has been a struggle.

“All the energy we have put into doing this in the south would have been rewarded much more elsewhere,” he says. “We had chances to leave Campania but because of the family and the logistical problems of moving, we are still here,” he adds, naming Florida as an opportunity the company passed up.

Asked what has been their biggest headache, Mr Fogliano sums up the situation with the words “a government that is not our friend”, meaning both regional and central. He lists high taxes, long administrative processes, and restrictive labour laws that mean hiring workers “is like getting married”.

For three years the company could not use the airport next door for testing its aircraft. Once completed they had to be disassembled, transported to a different airfield for reassembling, then taken apart once again for shipment to distant destinations.

More than 70 per cent of the 270 or so single and twin-engine aircraft made by the company each year are exported. Production was scaled down slightly this year because of the economic crisis, Mr Fogliano explains on a tour of gleaming hangars and workshops opening on to the airfield.

Significantly, when Tecnam decided to expand last year it took up an attractive offer made by the regional government of Aragon in northern Spain. There, Tecnam is moving from metal into the next generation of composite materials for the fuselage. But Mr Fogliano insists that Campania will remain the mother ship for Tecnam and its 120-strong workforce.

Aircraft manufacturing in Campania dates back to the 1920s. The mainstay is Alenia Aeronautica, the aviation arm of Finmeccanica, a public company with the Italian government as its controlling shareholder. Four plants employ a total of about 4,500 workers. Alenia says the global financial crisis has slowed civil output but so far none of its workforce has been laid off.

The largest plant, at Pomigliano d’Arco, works on assembly of primary aerostructures and complete fuselages, including systems. Projects include the ATR regional transport aircraft, Boeing 767 commercial transport aircraft, composite work on the Boeing 787, and Finmeccanica’s own C-27J military transport aircraft.

Other centres carry out work for Airbus, Boeing, winglets for the Tornado and the Eurofighter Typhoon. The Capodichino plant is refurbishing 18 Italian airforce transport aircraft (the G.222 redesignated as the C-27A Spartan) under a $287m contract awarded by the Pentagon to supply Afghanistan’s armed forces.

Campania’s aeronautics cluster has spawned many smaller companies reliant on producing components for the bigger manufacturers. These smaller enterprises have been hit hardest by the downturn and industrialists say they are feeling the squeeze, while state-backed Cira and Alenia, which as part of the Finmeccanica group are key beneficiaries of Italy’s commercially driven foreign policy, remain cushioned from the crisis.

Boeing, meanwhile, is tapping Italian expertise by opening a research centre focused on advanced materials in the town of Portici under an agreement with Alenia. Boeing is also funding 12 students from Federico II, which was founded in 1224, to take masters’ programmes in systems engineering in the US.

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