Though not the flashiest Italian car manufacturer, the automotive firm Fiat has long been a staple of the country's industrial sector, providing vehicles to a wider mass market than its local brethren -- the Ferraris, Maseratis, and Lamborghinis that cater only to the elite.
As such, the firm's research and development center, with a main base in Orbassano, Turin, is constantly thinking up ways to reinvent its automotive products in cost-effective ways, from their physical design to their fuel efficiency, safety features, and beyond.
Established in 1978 as the Fiat Group reference center for innovation, the Centro Ricerche Fiat (CRF) is responsible for almost all of the company's technological growth. Its 1,000-strong staff (600 of whom are engineers) is permanently engaged in looking for substitute car components and materials while maximizing sustainability, safe mobility, telematics, mechatronics, and even optics. "Italy loves cars, and of course, many young engineers love working on cars," said Stefano Re Fiorentin, general manager of the CRF.
Besides its main site in Orbassano, the CRF boasts three decentralized branches in Bari, Trento, and Foggia, with one more site dealing exclusively with the advanced research of optics and plastics for lighting systems at Udine.
More than 1,000 industrial partners, including universities and various research centers across the world, serve to swell the CRF's ranks and propel it even further. The center also absorbs engineers from scholarship programs it has in association with Turin Polytechnic and Windsor University in Canada.
Currently holding a total of 2,860 patents (both granted and pending), the CRF can take direct credit for a number of important innovations in Fiat cars, mainly in terms of powertrains, the Diesel Common Rail System (Unijet and multijet), and the new TwinAir engine.
The center's engineers spend much of their time designing Fiat's future powertrains, chassis, and bodies, as well as the related electronics needed in-car. Integration of electronics with mechanics is a key part of the work, Re Fiorentin said, with "integrated approaches," meaning the combination of various disciplines to get the best performance, being the center's buzzword.
In terms of high-tech in-car connectivity, the center is also responsible for Fiat's set of Blue&Me connectivity products, driving adviser, and magic parking driver assistance systems, as well as the Eco drive navigation product suite. Undoubtedly, however, the CRF remains mainly focused on problems of propulsion as petroleum supplies dwindle globally.