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The rise of Italian press brake manufacturing

A willingness to adopt new technologies early, combined with intelligence and creativity means that Italian press brakes will be set to impress potential buyers at Lamiera 2017. It has not all been smooth sailing for Italian manufacturing in recent years due to the influx of low cost imported press brakes to the European market in the early 2000s and the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, Italian press brake manufacturers have faced their greatest challenge. The adage that only the strong survive is evident by the emergence of premium Italian manufacturers over the past decade as new leaders in the global sheet metal industry.

Italy saw a significant increase in manufacturing and manufacturing exports post World War II. The advent of the domestic steel industry opened the way for new manufacturing growth in sectors that included the manufacture and export of machine tools, automobiles and domestic appliances. Today, Italy is the second largest manufacturer in Europe and ranked as the 8th largest exporter in the world.

However, the strength of Italian manufacturing has been challenged in recent times from the influx of lower cost imported machine tools, the Global Financial Crisis and subsequent years of nominal growth. The Italian manufacturing industry in general also faces pressure from high production costs compared to manufacturers in some developing countries with which domestic manufacturers have had to compete.

From 2003 the press brake industry, Europe especially, saw a proliferation of relatively inexpensive press brakes that were imported from countries with significantly lower production costs. The aggressive expansion of imported machines during this time placed greater pressure on local press brake manufacturers, especially those positioned as mid-level market players. Imported machines initially represented tremendous perceived value to the end user market as the level of machines, features and standard inclusions, were comparable, if not better, than many of the equivalent Italian offerings. For some Italian manufacturers, this coupled with higher production costs applied significant market pressure. Several of the mid-level manufacturers were already starting to experience a gradual decline in press brake sales and production in the years preceding the Global Financial Crisis. Unfortunately, many of these manufacturers did not react quickly enough, if at all, to adapt to this growing market pressure and the onset of the Global Financial Crisis and sudden decline in global manufacturing from late 2008 delivered the final and decisive blow.

The period of greatest success for these inexpensive imports began in 2003 until the latter months of 2008. Despite the success of these imports and unlike many of the mid-level manufacturers, the market leading Italian manufacturers at the time were not experiencing loss of volume because the market was in a boom time while experiencing rapid growth. However, all that changed quickly when the Global Financial Crisis struck. Suddenly every press brake manufacturer found themselves in a position of having to fight for survival in extremely difficult market conditions just to achieve 30% to 50% of the sales they had realised prior to the economic downturn.

The result of this was a major shakeup of Italian press brake manufacturers due to the combined pressure of lower cost imports and the dramatic collapse in sales that saw several of the market leaders fail economically. Of those that survived, many companies had changed ownership or underwent a significant internal restructure, however some of these manufacturers failed to adapt, innovate or differentiate their product offerings, leaving them vulnerable and still unable to effectively combat the more economical imports in a highly competitive market environment. By this time, the market landscape saw a shift from the traditional market leaders to those manufacturers beginning to emerge from the Global Financial Crisis.

Those manufacturers that did eventually emerge, had managed to trade their way through a difficult economic period while at the same time having the vision to realise a long-term strategy to success through innovation and development that would lead to products and technology that would set them apart from the current competition. Investment in research and development is difficult to sustain through periods of financial pressure but that is the single common factor that the new emerging leaders all shared.

A shift in thinking was required where designing and building good machines with solid design and features was no longer good enough. With a strong focus on developing and incorporating innovative technology, functionality and usability into machine design, these manufacturers strived to deliver speed, efficiency and performance to their customers. A key to this design evolution was the move away from traditional machine design based on bundled generic third party components and software to the adoption of custom embedded technology and bespoke hardware and software solutions that were unique to each manufacturer.

The results of this can be seen today where Italian designed and manufactured press brakes not only standout through their unique aesthetic appeal, but also deliver so much more in terms of innovative user functionality and superior levels of efficiency, productivity and outright performance compared to many of the imported machine offerings with which Italian manufacturers contested the market so fiercely years before.

This story does not end with superior machine design and performance. Manufacturers also recognised the importance and value in retaining and continuing to focus on build quality and customer support. During the economic down-turn where manufacturers faced their most trying period in recent industry history, it could have been far simpler and cost effective to allow build design and quality to lapse in a desperate attempt cut costs and claw back a minor short term economic advantage. However, history shows us that Italian manufacturers are far too proud to let design and quality take a back seat, no matter what the cost. In the long term, this methodology has paved the way for these manufacturers to rise from the economic ashes and emerge as not only stronger market players, but many have secured their place amongst the industry’s leading global brand names.

Italian press brake manufacturers now stand out in the global market place with a significantly stronger market presence and with a deserved perception of premium design, build quality and performance. This could not have been more evident than at last year’s EuroBLECH fair in Hannover. Italy’s most premium manufacturers were well represented across multiple halls, accounting for approximately 30 percent of the total number of industry leading European press brake manufacturers that exhibited at the fair.

Premium Italian manufacturers have risen to a new level, leaving behind the generic mid-level market offerings from the previous decade and are now in a dominant position to combat the competitive pressure from economical imported machines. While a price premium is still likely for an Italian press brake compared to many of the somewhat loosely comparative and more economical imports, buyers are more educated today with greater awareness to evaluate a relatively minor price premium being worthy of superior design, technology, productivity, reliability, performance and support features on offer. This new market position has also enabled premium Italian manufacturers to continue successful expansion into global markets and strengthen their competitive position alongside their European counterparts.

Lamiera 2017, held for the first time in Milan, is the perfect stage to showcase and congratulate all the premium Italian press brake manufacturers that have shown the perseverance, vision and determination to defy the odds over the past decade and continue to build on the great Italian manufacturing story for generations to come. 

Article published in the Press Brake Buyer's Guide ISSUE 05.

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