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FARE INSIEME - Ep. 64 - Norblast, the Emilian sandblasting and shot-peening giant

«Let me tell you about my company ‘swimming against the tide’»

27/06/2022

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It was born from a brilliant intuition that broke with the status quo and has been an institution since the 1970s. An identikit of the Norblast group which, together with subsidiary Peen Service focused on R&D and boasting over 25 shot-peening systems to provide services for third parties, boasts 75 employees and a turnover exceeding €13 million, 5% of which is invested in R&D. In addition, a joint venture was established in 2000 with Spanish company Iparblast to which technologies have been transmitted to provide shot-peening services to third parties on the Spanish market. For FARE Insieme, Giampaolo Colletti interviews Remo Norelli, founder of Norblast

di Giampaolo Colletti
@gpcolletti

Photocredit: Giacomo Maestri e Francesca Aufiero

An old Chinese proverb says that a sly rabbit will have three openings to its den. After all, the story we are about to tell you follows exactly this vision. Because it is not easy to swim against the tide, but it gives immense pleasure when you succeed. There you have it, the entrepreneurial story of Remo Norelli - an Italian genius and founder of what, in over 40 years, has become a global giant when it comes to industrial sanding and shot-peening - who sums it up as swimming against the tide. Trying, trying again, even making mistakes, but managing in the end. This is the philosophy of Norelli, who was even appointed Knight (Cavaliere al merito) of the Italian Republic in 2007. Everything was born in that Bologna of the 1960s-1970s, when it became an attraction hub for mechanics, part of that Emilian district that the world still envies us to this day. Norblast was established in Bologna in 1977. Everything started in a small garage of 80 sqm. But swimming against the tide, though tiring, can multiply the spaces, opportunities and business. This is what happened to Norelli, who developed a new process, that of sandblasting, whose technical characteristics or consideration at the time meant it was perceived as low-tech.  “At the time, people thought sandblasting would ruin the walls or bodywork. Time proved that it was not true. For me, everything started from the experience gained in the chip removal machine tool sector. At the time, this was the most advanced technology available on the market. But I realised there was a gap when it came to surface finishing, especially in the area of moulds. I started creating the first small machine aimed at finishing and maintaining shoe sole moulds. We ennobled a process that was at the time considered vulgar, involving low technology, low control and heavily toxic and polluting. We abandoned the profitable tool machine sector to dedicate ourselves to the production and commercialization of our shot peening machines,” explains Remo Norelli, founder of Norblast, a family business where the second generation is already at work with Francesco and Stefano Norelli, busy with corporate and commercial organization respectively.  

Growth over the years.
Not everything took place in Bologna, though. Soon Norelli travelled all over Italy and abroad clocking up kilometres, hopes and projects. “I have a lot of good memories of when I used to drive all over the Ancona province with a truck and a sample shot peening machine. At the time, a lot of rubber sole producers were located there. How many kilometres and how many machines sold! I had such an enthusiasm that, although I already had a business dealing with machine tools, I decided to abandon this sector that provided certainty to fully delve into this adventure and into the unknown,” stresses Norelli. He was not wrong, and time proved him right. Today, Norblast Group boasts 75 employees with a turnover that exceeds €13 million, 25% of which made abroad. What makes the difference is the alliance with universities. Collaborations include that with the Politecnico and the Universities of Milan, Trent, Bologna, Ferrara and Pisa. The first automatic systems for the fashion and jeans sandblasting sector arrived in 1989, followed the next year by those for the ceramic sector with the decorative blasting of ceramic stoneware tiles. Then, at the end of the 1980s, there were the first processes to increase the fatigue resistance of metals. Research is what led to growth. In 1990, once again as a pioneer, Norblast gambled on internship contracts with the University of Bologna. “At the time, the company was made up of twelve people and hiring a researcher with the relative costs was a brave choice. Then, in 1995, we set up the R&D department: a test centre with an area featuring various systems at the disposal of clients. Because we offer solutions, not machines,” repeats Norelli as a mantra. The importance that the group gives over to research can be grasped from the budget: over 5% of the turnover to try and design the solutions of tomorrow.  

Present and future.
Today, the giant ranges from the automotive to the aviation sector, from food, pharmaceutical and biomedical sectors to Oil&Gas, composites and foundry. “Over the past few years, the market has witnessed a growth of the additive manufacturing sector to Industry 4.0 solutions. Today, connectivity makes the difference: systems connect to corporate IT systems in a quick, easy and intuitive manner and integrates the production flows already present thanks to a team of software developers that listen to and analyse specific requests and customise made-to-measure solutions,” says Norelli. The future aims at reducing energy costs and managing and protecting the environment. “Shot-peening and sandblasting systems are energy-intensive by nature, as they use considerable quantities of compressed air. But together with Cubit, a spin-off of the University of Pisa, research was set up to increase the efficiency of one of our shot peening guns,” concludes Norelli. Once again, looking towards the future while asking questions and trying to find new answers. After all, it is the nature of innovators to swim against the tide. 

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