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With numerous new and restyled products, the garage equipment industry was at Autopromotec in closed ranks, which guaranteed new vigour to the expectations of a re-launch, with exports the direction preferred by Italian manufacturers

Francesco Lojola

GARAGE EQUIPMENT in top form at Bologna for the 25th Autopromotec, the international fair that can take the credit for re-launching the image and prospects of a dynamic segment and has numerous cards to play, despite current problems. It is one of the few sectors in the Italian automotive universe that is capable of a decisive and incisive reaction precisely because of its exporting tradition: of the €2,435 million turnover estimated for 2012 by Aica, the Italian association of garage equipment manufacturers, no less than 71% (€1,728 million) was from sales across the border.
But don’t dare talk about a market recovery: it’s practically taboo for exorcising the ghosts of the crisis. Which undoubtedly left its mark, if it is true that last year the downturn in sector turnover was about 10% (-13.2% and -8.6% in domestic and foreign markets, respectively) compared to 2011, in addition to 2% fewer operators - from 15,957 to 15,638.
So there is no optimism about 2013, which firms see as being yet another year of transition towards more serene horizons that are still difficult to imagine in Italy, where the continuing credit crunch, increased unemployment, the downturn in registrations (-20% in 2012 and -12.3% at the start of the year), the growth in vehicle scrapping, decreased travel (less fuel and tyre consumption and longer maintenance intervals), point to maximum prudence and pragmatism.

The advance in market polarization
What was amply demonstrated at the fair were attitudes that for some players in the supply chain were perceived as being inspired by prudence intertwined with a fear of taking risks, while others where in tune with pragmatism, in some cases augmented by a display of muscle: ostentatiously large stands with an impressive array of showcases and new products.
The 2013 edition of Autopromotec had a record number of exhibitors – 1,512, of which 584 were from abroad -  and the area  occupied had increased to 156,000 square metres. An exhibition that was shown to be the faithful mirror of a garage equipment market that is multifaceted and, above all, even more clearly segmented, where the definition of roles and objectives is contributing to clarify things. If in fact the attitude of companies at the top of the segment was that of those who intend to lengthen their stride with a plethora of new products backed up by more new technicians and applications than were expected on the eve, then the lower profile of the followers-on emphasized almost spasmodic attention to the requests of a domestic market that is folding in on itself: products that, by and large, are to be bought only as necessary and to get by with, at least until the crisis is over.  It is the constantly increasing target of less structured tyre specialists and garages that suffer more from the economic situation. If the middle segment is tending to empty, at the top of the pyramid there are still customers who can invest in high-end garage equipment.

New products even for a smaller demand
It is the sign of growing demand polarization that manufacturers at the fair in Bologna responded to either by repackaging recent machines in the basic segment to give them a patina of newness with restyling and improvements derived from equipment of a higher level, or with appropriately simplified entry-level versions of products already on the market.
On the other hand, national brands flew the flag of innovations in mid-high and top level garage equipment. In general, the watchword for garage equipment is operating speed -  especially with regard to the considerably seasonal nature of the tyre specialist’s work -   combined with all-round ease of use.
The example came primarily from new-generation balancers, whose cycle times are reduced to a few seconds and for which precision must go hand in hand with reliability. Alongside the widespread renewed design that included declared studies in ergonomics, the additional injection of electronics in high-end models, authentic wheel diagnostics centres that depend on sonar and laser for detection and measurement (line and now also dot); new machines that can communicate with external devices thanks to an incorporated PC,  or that use cameras to frame the tyre and rim, as well as programs optimized for identifying radial and lateral run-out, tread depth and drift angle.

Make way for bi-modal tyre changers
Because the market prefers basic models (of the 3,000 balancers sold in Italy in 2012, only 5% have diagnostic functions), the new balancers were mainly in the mid-range. With new details, like multifunction pushbuttons on touchscreen machines for changing a selection  quickly without looking at the monitor. Triumphing among tyre changers were the lever-less models, with the simultaneous success of bi-modal machines, which will operate automatically and, if required for smaller and softer tyres, also manually. No longer the lever-less kit for adapting tyre changers, but plug & play systems that quickly change a machine’s configuration.  Among the superautomatic machines, there was a re-launch of stations where the wheel is held vertically and operation that gains in strength and precision. Once again homage was paid to rapid operation with new products that have simpler and more immediate rim blocking mechanisms and include a closing device that leverages on a kind of maxi expansion plug. A category that did not feel the downturn in the market quite as much, aligners are the avant-garde in the line-up of sector innovations: touchless is the new frontier in aligners that were well represented in the Bologna showcase by Italian and German industries.

Touchless aligners
Along with systems of this type that are already more compact, the new products include a totem-less 3D model fitted with new three-dimensional targets and accredited with operation that excludes compensation manoeuvers, and new pre-control devices that are useful for fast wheel geometry diagnosis that can be done even in the workshop’s car park. And if the CCD examples do not evolve but remain on the market, because they still  represent three-quarters of sales, now they fit in a suitcase and can be connected to a laptop for working on the track during the frequent trials by car manufacturers. As to lifts, versatility wins: primarily with the new ones that are part of the general massive range renewal in the underbody double scissor categories and the more complex under wheel models. The former are designed to lift maximum weight, irrespective of the position of the mobile platforms, and give better weight distribution; the latter have a combined configuration with integrated platforms and the alignment versions can take city cars and long wheelbase vans without having to change the position of the rotating plates. Sensors are also evolving, beginning with the inclination angle detector, to the advantage of the control console that immediately indicates any faults. Lastly, Autopromotec was the setting for the premieres of similar developments in lifts for trucks.

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