Monday, 22 April 2013

Breton, from stone to hydrogen; 50 years of machinery and innovation

The leader in the work centre field, throws down the gauntlet in the new fuel cell market.

And the company tempts top archistars with maxi-gres for skyscrapers.

TREVISO — The pinnacle of production, breaking new ground based on fifty years of experience,  the fluorinated titanium dioxide is a powder which, when used as an electrolyte multiplies the output of batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, like those used in electric and hydrogen cars. 
So what's that got to do, I hear you say, with the story of Breton, the company from Castello di Godego, in the province of Treviso that took the marble and granite machinery sector by storm in the 70's when they invented engineered stone and an entirely new industrial sector with its high-speed work centres? Quite a lot, because innovation is in the DNA of this company, which in 2013 celebrates fifty years at the head of a group with a forecast turnover for 2013 of over 170 million euro, employing 700 people in 4 production units in Veneto («We've never delocalized - they say in the company - because you just can't beat Italian quality»). In the last 4 years this company has invested 58 million euro in the refurbishing of its works and machinery, the name of which (Bre-ton) is the abbreviation of two words (Brevetti Toncelli). 

Simply put, Breton’s goal is not just to build machines, but to offer something new. It's always been their goal, ever since the company was established by the founding father Marcello Toncelli, awarded the Order of Merit for Labour. He passed away ten years ago, but in Breton his spirit lives on, and he's fondly remembered; always curious to know more, poking his nose into the research centre with new ideas and encouragement.
A story in a story, that of his life. Born in Piombino (Tuscany), at a young age he moved with his parents to Trentino when his father was sent to the mountains for health reasons. After the war he went to work down the mines in Belgium, and then moved back to Italy to work as an accountant in Bassano. Toncelli made his way in the years of the boom. He set up his own business, fitting parquet and marble floors. There were no machines to cut it, but that didn't stop him. «I'll make them», he said, and fifty years later, this same intuition has now led to titanium dioxide. «Breton was offered this opportunity purely by chance - says Luca Toncelli, the company chairman, and the second generation at the head of the company with his brother Dario -. A Russian customer told us of a scientist who couldn't find a sponsor to fund his work. We've been working on the project with Padua University for ten years now: we're currently building a pilot plant after having patented the process to produce electrolyte». This is the chemical component that converts hydrogen into electrical energy in fuel cells: the Breton roduct should mean a huge difference in terms of yield and make overheating a thing of the past. It may even pave the way with a cost-effective means of using hydrogen as an energy source.

«In two years - explains Toncelli - we'll be ready. In other words, we'll have to decide whether to sell the machinery for making the electrolyte, produce electrolyte ourselves, or start making fuel cells and batteries». Whatever the choice, it'll be something completely new compared to what the company’s done until now. 
Over the years they've made their name as a leader in the machinery sector, at first with marble and granite cutting and shaping machines (35% of the turnover), and in recent years they've added high-speed work centres to the line for machining materials ranging from steel to light alloys or engineered stone. 
These work centres have been the choice of customers such as Red Bull in Formula One, who bought four for moulding and building parts of their F1 car bodies, not to mention car makers Toyota and Volkswagen, or the American helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky, who chose these work centres for machining the tips of their blades, or Boeing who uses the work centres to produce the carbon fibre doors of its planes. 
The company’s heart however lies in engineered stone, the patented technology that made Breton a household name the whole world over. From kitchen sinks to floors, wall tiles for indoor and outdoor compositions, this unique engineered material made of crushed quartz quarry fragments bonded together with resins or cement, commonly called engineered stone, has created not only a niche but a market of its own. An evolution over the last thirty years, from the 70's to today, an idea to create a product that matches the beauty of natural stone.
Some twenty or so companies have been established all over the world, with 60 plants employing over six thousand people, with more than fifty thousand working in ancillary industries. And the innovation of the stone and coverings never stops. For some it's true, there may well be a crisis, but Breton never looks back and has in fact just opened a new company called Lapitec in Vedelago, with a surface area of 100,000 m2. Here, they've installed their biggest and latest hi-tech plant for producing maxi-slabs of ceramic stone (3.4 x 1.5 m). The idea is to exploit a truly exceptional solution in the coverings sector for skyscrapers and major public works, but also for the furnishing sector, by putting this solution directly on the plate of the biggest names in architecture (and it's already a winner for archistar Philip Starck). An excellent opportunity, also for the first 25 employees who found work in this time of crisis: a number which could soon rise to 150.

Breton picks up the gauntlet, and once again comes up with something new.  
(Translation of article in the Corriere del Veneto Sunday 17 February 2013) 


  1. Bravo this is a very nice translation as well as an exciting reminder about how forward thinking Breton S.p.A is.