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Ferrari: “The diversity of polymers and our sense of innovation are the keys to our success”

An interview with Françoise Fournier, tensile architecture market manager at Serge Ferrari, one of the world leaders in flexible composite materials.
Ferrari: “The diversity of polymers and our sense of innovation are the keys to our success”
Ferrari: “The diversity of polymers and our sense of innovation are the keys to our success”

Serge Ferrari is known worldwide for its flexible composite membranes for architecture, industry and the general public. What strategy have you used to stay on top for almost 50 years?

There are several, we are first and foremost a family business and it is currently the fourth generation of Ferraris who are at the helm. This stability allows us to look to the future in the long term by taking the time to develop our products.

Our positioning is rather upmarket, which corresponds perfectly to the expectations of architects who are increasingly interested in tensile fabrics. We cover very broad sectors, from tensile architecture to modular structures, including furniture and solar protection. I think we embody both technology and innovation. Finally, we have several production sites to meet all demands. Four are in Europe (France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy) and the last one is in Taiwan.

 

You mentioned your ability to innovate. Are your products developed in-house?

Absolutely, and this has been the case since the beginning of the adventure in 1974 with what we call the Précontraint technology. This is a flexible composite fabric made of woven polyester and vinyl coating. Pre-stressed means that it is under tension during the entire production process. Our composite materials are flexible but almost non-deformable, they have a very high dimensional stability. Our customers know that once they are installed, they will not 'move' again. This is very important because many fabrics are likely to stretch in heavy rainfall, for example, where pockets of water can form.

Coming back to research, we spend about 4% of our turnover on research. It involves the development of new materials, but also the manufacture and development of the machines used to produce them. We also have a team of chemists who work on formulations based on polymers, our raw materials, on which our business is based.

 

 

In this regard, what are the latest products you have developed?

There are several, but among our recent innovations, I can mention STFE, which stands for Structure, Transparency, Fluorine and Envelope. It is, as always, a composite fabric made up of a fluoropolymer for the outer side and a polyarylate reinforcement for the inner side. We are very proud of this because it is the first composite that is both structural and perfectly transparent. It is lightweight, very strong and can be perfectly tensioned.

 

This new material has been designed to replace glass or polycarbonate in certain cases, particularly for covering walkways or halls such as those in bus stations. It is this fabric that was used to cover a pedestrian passageway in the extension of the new Istanbul airport in Turkey, or for the façade of the ephemeral Grand Palais in Paris, a place that is currently used by the events sector, and which will host events during the next Olympic Games in 2024.

I would also like to mention Stamskin Zen Agivir, a fabric with antiviral and bactericidal properties that is mainly intended for furniture and interior design in places open to the public (schools, nurseries, hospitals, etc.). The bactericidal and antiviral principle is based on silver particles that are incorporated into the surface treatment of the material, which is 99.5% effective against viruses, including Covid-19, and is non-toxic. It is available in many colours and the active surface is guaranteed for 3 years.  

So much for the new products... Some of the fabrics are of course older, can you tell us about those dedicated to architecture?

Yes, we have several hundred products in our catalogue, including several dozen that are specifically for architecture. I'm not going to mention them all, but I would like to mention the Flexlight Crosslink TX30-II, a translucent membrane. It is a fabric made of a High Tenacity polyester fibre frame coated with polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF). In addition to its excellent light transmission properties, it is also mechanically strong and durable for up to 30 years. It is undoubtedly for these reasons that it is chosen by architects who build stadiums. Tennis fans know it well because it was used for the retractable roof of the Philippe Chatrier court at Roland Garros. Even when closed, it allows light to pass through, allowing players to continue their match in case of rain.

Another of our membranes incorporates PTFE, better known under its commercial name of Teflon©. To give credit where credit is due, this membrane was developed by Verseidag, a German company that we acquired in 2020. It was chosen for the new entrance to the Messe Düsseldorf exhibition centre (Germany), with a surface area of almost 8,000m². It also lets light through. Thanks to PTFE, rain or dust slides off, and it is weatherproof and has a high fire resistance.

 

You are a favourite with leading architects who build large structures, do you know why?

Yes, we are and we are very flattered. I think there are two reasons for this. The first is the flexibility of our materials. They can be assembled quite easily, they can be bent, they can take on amazing shapes and they never get deformed. They allow for all kinds of aesthetic daring. Their lightness is another of their assets, as they do not require a particularly massive infrastructure or heavy supporting structures to accommodate them. Our canvases thus contribute to the finesse of their works and even to the aerial aspect they want to give them; something that is not possible with glass or PMMA or even with polycarbonate... This is already quite good, but far from being sufficient to seduce architects, which brings us to the second point. Thanks to the polymers we use, our fabrics have intrinsic qualities that make them resistant to the ravages of time, and they are also easy to maintain. We guarantee their durability for between thirty and forty years depending on the product.

With a little pride, I would say that architects are not the only ones interested in our membranes. Some major artists also trust us.
This is the case of Anish Kapoor with whom we have been collaborating for more than 10 years, participating in the construction of his often monumental works such as the famous Leviathan exhibited in Paris in 2011.

 

It is a real source of pride for us, because it is he who came to us as it seemed to him that Précontraint was what he needed to give life to his most fanciful projects. All that remained was to find the right colours, which our chemists were quick to do, because the subject was so exciting.

How do you work with these artists and architects?

Our main job is to develop polymer-based composite materials. They leave our production centres in the form of rolls. To give them the required shape, architects and engineering firms design and calculate the appropriate shapes, and then we work with processors who take care of the cutting and assembly, usually by welding. Nevertheless, it is a real collaborative effort, whether with the processors, the architects or the artists.

 

Finally, do you manage the end of life of your canvases?

Yes, and it has even become one of our strategic priorities. As early as 2008, we were part of the Texyloop adventure, a recycling technology using selective dissolution that allows us to separate PVC from polyester. Based in Italy, the production site has made it possible to recycle more than 13 million square metres of material over a period of ten years, which has found a second life in the form of insulation film for terraces or various membranes. Although the process was convincing, it had one drawback: the fabrics had to be transported to Italy, which emits a significant amount of CO2. Having mastered this industrial process, we developed our own project and named it Polyloop. It is based on small recycling units that can be installed in a maritime container, for example, and are capable of recycling various polymer-based composite materials. The idea is to multiply them and install them next to production sites, both our own and those of our competitors, distributors or customers. In this way, we are the ones who will be dealing with post-industrial or post-consumer waste and not the other way round. We hope to install the first modules next year.

 

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