Arix: Excellence in sponges and cleaning products manufacture and investment in research and development


Interview broadcasted, before Arix Group sale of Abrax shares in November 2015, during the TV show "Buone Cose"

Welcome to Viadana in the province of Mantua where we are taking a tour of Arix, together with the General Manager, Riccardo Melegari.
First we saw the sponges… This type of kitchen sponge, which is the classic kind that we basically see just about everywhere. But synthetic materials aren't the only ones available.
Yeah, exactly, the market is pretty much divided up 60/40; we couple both plastic and natural backing, which is more valuable. These two types of backings are used not just for kitchen sponges, but also for the entire range of body care products; it's the same material in different colours and obviously different sizes.
You said we "couple" because, as we said before, it means hot or cold gluing the abrasive part of the sponge. Exactly! The abrasive fibre, the same one produced by our subsidiary Abrax, is coupled. In this case, since it's a natural product, instead of being coupled by heat … fire we use an odourless glue, which obviously is hypo-allergenic because it comes into contact with human skin, so it has to be absolutely neutral from that standpoint.

As far as quality is concerned, does using natural fibre instead of synthetic materials make a big difference?
Let's say that today technology has made great progress in the field of synthetics and today we have synthetic materials that don't have that glassy feel that they had just 10 years ago anymore. Today they have a very soft, very velvety feel whether wet or dry. However, it's certainly true that the main difference between a plastic and a natural backing is basically this: plastic holds dirt and grease when it comes to body care, while instead natural materials expel it with just a squeeze of the hand under running water. So the difference is substantial, but there's also a substantial difference in price. Obviously vegetal backing costs considerably more than a plastic one.

Sometimes sponges have a smell that isn't exactly sweet. Is that dirt being held?
It's the dirt clinging to the channels—to the holes, shall we say—in the plastic; instead, natural backing expels it.
There's something else I was wondering about. You talk about natural backing, but what is this backing actually made of?
It's wood pulp from tree crops. No tree in nature gets cut down. It comes from North America and it is preprocessing (preliminary) of cellulose wadding, that is, toilet paper.
So it has its eye on cleaning and a close eye on the environment as well.
Absolutely! I'd say that this is a really major source of employment, especially for North America, in the lake areas, to be exact Cleveland and all of Canada for example, where they are grown just for making toilet paper and this product. Indeed, the producers of this backing are all North American.
So Riccardo Melegari, before we get to the part about body care still talking about sponges, let's go back to the office a second to see your brother, because we have other important things to talk about regarding the company.

Here we are again with Silvano Melegari, Managing Director of the Arix group that produces sponges and cleaning cloths. What are today's market demands?
The Italian market is particularly demanding, despite the drop in consumption over 2012/2013. I have to say that Italy is the most demanding country in terms of cleaning and it's also the one that consumes the most, even if consumption hasn't grown.
That's why our research in this area is fundamental and it's also why we do our research in Italy to ensure not just the quality of products, but also to ensure innovative products.
During our tour we saw many different types of products. But how much research do you have to do?
I have to be honest, what we spend in research is equal to 3% of our turnover, which is about €1 million every year that goes from €800,000-€1 million of research into new products, and above all new materials to meet consumer demands. For example, I have to say that recently our winning card was creating a completely recyclable broom made from the thread of plastic bottles rather than the plastic used for the polypropylene base, making it completely recyclable.

From 1969 to today the Arix group has really known how to expand. Could we say that dishwashers don't send the kitchen sponge market into a crisis?
They sure don't. Some housekeepers wash the sponge in the dishwasher right in with the dishes! This guarantees endurance and hygiene.
Absolutely not, dishwashers don't make sponges any less useful.
Can we delve a little deeper… what difference is there between a kitchen sponge and a sponge for personal hygiene?
Well, the kitchen sponge is a sponge that scrapes more we could say, and therefore cleans more aggressively. The one you use for your body instead, and therefore for the bath, is much more delicate and so it has to be much more attractive from an aesthetic standpoint as well, so research into this is quite important.
Do you use the same raw material?
We could say it's the same even though you have to realise that the body sponge is more delicate and therefore it's made out of nobler materials… if we can put it that way.

Certainly, the province of Mantua has many riches… culinary as well. We were in the kitchen before with the sponges that you produce precisely to wash dishes and so on; but you don't just make kitchen sponges right?
Let's say that our Terminal site, as we call it, for making the different products is the one we're looking at right now. This is also where not just kitchen sponges are cut and wrapped, but also the entire "bodycare" range. These are just a few examples. Why? Simply because the raw materials basically come from the same place. Obviously they come in different colours and with abrasive fibre or massaging material. But in general they are made out of the same materials.
In this case our brand for the body care sector, AQUAmassage, holds about 30% of the market share in Italy.
That's a big deal. Is there also a line for children? There is a Children's line; there is a Sports line for men. We've diversified the line a little bit to meet all the different demands that "body care" has kind of branched out with over the past 10 years. Just think of the gym phenomenon. So there's a sports line that offers an array of ad hoc materials for washing off sweat, washing without water, and so on. So "bodycare" is obviously the one that has a bit more draw on the market, while "kitchen care" is substantially a bit less revolutionary.

Tell me something. These are also natural fibre sponges, but this time they are for cleaning the bathroom.
In this case it's something I use for a room. It's for "house care"; it's coupled with a cellulose backing just like the other one that we saw just a few minutes ago, but it's coupled with an anti-scratch fibre, that is, it is anti-scratch to keep from scratching bathroom ceramics. It's kind of an unusual product, but in Italy it has a large share of the market, because Italy places great emphasis on the bathroom.
The sponge is wet. How come? Because since the backing is entirely natural, just like anything that is vegetal or animal it decomposes. In this case, we put an anti-decomposition agent in it, if you can call it that, which preserves the product while still packaged. Obviously, it has everything it needs to not hurt the consumer's skin, and the first time you wash it with water everything gets expelled. That's why this sponge becomes as dry as wood when it dries after its first use. You think it's broken, but instead the female consumer knows that as soon as you put it underwater it turns soft again in just a second.
Before concluding this second part of ours, I want to figure something out. We are taking a tour of a plant, a workplace, were sponges are cut; in this case they are punched in the sense that they aren't cut lengthwise, but rather by a pressure cut.
But there ought to be dust. And there isn't, why is that? In this case, very little is generated because it's pressure cut, and doesn't produce scrap. But in the other section where you mainly have shaping, there is a ventilation system that sucks in all the dust, especially from the nail-protection because it's very dangerous. We're talking about polyurethane foam, plastics, so things that are definitely not that safe. But we recycle it completely, in fact, in these pictures we're looking at the bags for collecting it. We sell it to transformers that make it into draught excluders for door and window-bottom seals.
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