The company, a Milan-based innovation think-tank that specializes in the production of components for ultra-high vacuum and gas purification applications for industrial customers invests at least 10% of its revenues in research and innovation annually, a practice it says saved the company.
In 2009, SAES Getters recorded its worst sales in the 70 year history of the company, $164 million. It attributes that rough year to changes in technologies of one of its major industrial sectors. When consumer electronics companies were producing liquid crystal displays (LCD), SAES Getters provided vaccuum sealants and ultra pure gases that kept the liquid crystals found televisions and computer monitors alive. But, when the LCD industry made the move towards organic light emitting diode displays, SAES Getters’ business sunk to virtually zero because their components were no longer necessary. When LCD was in its hay-day, SAES Getters was producing getter and metal dispensers for the flat screen and cathode ray tubes within them.
Instead of tanking, however, the company went to work and stuck to its innovation-centric practices, developing more materials, such as shape memory alloys, and entering new markets such as automotive and renewable energy. “We’re still here because of our continuous R&D and innovation practices,” says Giulio Canale, managing director of SAES Getters. It seems that practice paid off. In 2011, the company was able to rebound, earning more than $190 million thanks to its recent focus on building its shape memory alloy business.
The company, founded in 1947, now boasts an arsenal of more 300 patents. Canale says the company produces between eight and 10 inventions a year, mainly inside its 35,000 square foot corporate headquarters on the outskirts of Milan.
The tour that followed the earlier press conference during a recent visit by journalists from Canada and the US, part of a media delegation hosted by Machines Italia and the Italian Trade Commission, was truly impressive. Unfortunately, because of the uber-secretive nature of the things the company is doing inside, photos and video coverage was not allowed. And to be honest, understandably so.
Nowadays, the company is focusing on bettering its vaccuum, metal dispensing, shape memory alloy and gas purification technologies. It has even developed a way to harness the hydrogen found in lithium-ioon batteries found in electric cars that will allow automakers to use larger batteries without worrying about them over-heating.
The batteries currently used in electric vehicles are about the size of laptop batteries, and are packaged together to form a battery-pack that reduces the danger of over-heating that could result in engine fires and other problems. Roberto Giannantonio, the company’s corporate research and development manager, says SAES Getters’ new hydrogen harnessing technologies could be a game changer.
And while it’s nearly impossible to describe the extent of what the company is doing at its Milanese facility here, I would highly suggest checking out the company’s website and having a look for yourself. One technology, however, really stuck out, and it’s simply based on its cool factor: shape memory alloys.
The company, which employees 1000 people at 10 facilities worldwide, is now producing shape memory alloy actuators, which replace the need for bulky DC and electronic motors. The alloys, which appears as ultra-thin wires grades, recover their shape through heat, making them ideal for compact, powerful and silent actuators, replacing traditional technologies made out of wax.
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Among other things, the company also produces ultra high-tech gas purifiers for advanced manufacturing applications like semiconductors, photovoltaics and fibre optics. It also producers silicon wafers for hermetic vaccuum packaging of micro electro mechanical system devices.
Although this was one of the earlier visits during our week long delegation, it was one of the most memorable. Not only because of all the ultra-cool lab equipment and testing machines housed within the company's headquarters, but also to understand how the company was able to come back from such a devastating loss, one that would cripple those companies that place innovation on the back burner. It also showed the present importance of advanced manufacturing and how innovation and research can be leveraged to produce new technologies in the global marketplace.
Canada, take notice. The days of advanced manufacturing is upon us. And SAES Getters is using innovation to prove it.