The new season for Spanish sheepskin tanners has continued along a similar path to last year. Relatively stable raw material prices have allowed manufacturers such as Inpelsa to meet reasonably high consumer demand for doubleface leather. ‘Two years ago it was nappa and suede that were in fashion and now we see increased demand for doubleface’, says Manuel Ríos, managing director. ‘As long as raw material prices remain stable, doubleface will be in demand. I have been in this business for many years now and these things are always cyclical’, he added.

Rios believes that the demand for doubleface will be lower than last year as the cost price and, therefore, the retail price will be higher and the consumer will be spending less in the shops. The global economic slowdown and the SARS epidemic add further evidence to the argument that demand in the shops will be lower this year.

Inpelsa, who are part of the Lederval Group along with shoe upper tanners Incusa, are one of the largest producers of sheepskin leathers in Spain. The Inpelsa tannery is located approximately one hour south of Valencia in the small town of Canals.

Ríos has been involved with the business since 1982 and is the second generation of the family to control the tannery. They produce leathers at the very high-end of the market and supply some of the world’s most famous brands such as Loewe. Last year the tannery had a turnover of between €35-37 million.

‘We have to concentrate on supplying top-end material using the best Entrefino and Merino skins from Spain. In recent years we have seen increased pressure on our native raw materials. It is due to increased competition, from China and Korea especially in the volume business. Closer to home we have to compete with buyers from Italy and Türkiye’, he told Leather International.

Continuous tannery upgrading

The entire tannery infrastructure has been continually upgraded over the past six years. Work has been carried out on the effluent treatment plant and other improvements include the installation of automation systems in the wet-end and finishing areas.

The tanning and retanning areas of the plant have been fitted with the System Dosing equipment from Olcina. Likewise, in the finishing area they have recently installed a completely automatic weighing, mixing and finish dosing system manufactured by the Italian company Pirovano. The equipment allows very small and complicated finishing batches to be prepared without spillage or risking the health and safety of the operators. Up to 77 products may be stored and each recipe is held electronically on a database.

It is now company policy to introduce technology and automation into the process on a gradual basis. The next step is to update the IT system throughout the factory and offices.

Environmental control

Some of the main changes to the infrastructure at Inpelsa have occurred in the area of environmental control. The tannery is situated in the heart of the countryside and idyllically located among a crop of Valenciana’s famous orange trees.

With the tannery processing between 8,000-10,000 skins 24 hours a day and using an average of 39 different chemical products, it is important to have a modern treatment plant.

‘The main disadvantage for producers in the EU is the tight ecological controls that we have to adhere to’, says Ríos. ‘We have had to invest millions of euros on improvements to our plant in Canals as well as the changes that we have had to make to our process to meet both the legislation and employee welfare.’

Although Manuel Rios has no problem with the costly environment investment and sees the improvements in working conditions as a benefit to the business, he is in no doubt that some tanners are environmentally penalised. Inpelsa are one of a growing band of European tanners who feel it unfair that tanners in other parts of the world do not have to meet the same strict and costly regulations.

Inpelsa have invested two million euros on environmental issues. The latest phase was completed in June 2002. They have installed a new four million-litre aeration tank and over the next two years they are intending to install a separate biotreatment.

Additionally, Inpelsa are looking into methods of reducing salt levels in the effluent. Work is being carried out along with other technical institutions in Spain on a project to lower sodium chloride residues in the waste. This is based on new technologies for preserving raw skins.

Inpelsa source their water from a nearby underground source. Equipment has been installed to treat and soften the hard water using osmosis. During the treatment plant upgrade they installed an industrial USF Bekox osmosis plant.

Tannery layout

When skins arrive at the tannery they are either fellmongered for nappa or fresh or salted (mainly) raw skins are put into the paddles for wool-on production.

The woolskins are soaked, scoured and pickled in a number of paddles, which is then followed by mechanical operations to clean the flesh side. The skins are then regraded and placed into one of four large mixer vessels for chrome tanning.

Inpelsa have the capacity to process between 8,000 to 10,000 skins a day. They source most of their raw materials from Spain in the form of high quality Merino and Entrefino skins. Most of the raw materials are stored in chilled rooms (+-5ºC) close to the beamhouse. They can store up to two months of production in the form of chilled and salted raw material.

After chrome tanning the skins are graded and retanning, dyeing and fatliquoring is carried out in the paddle or drum depending on the end-use. After toggle drying the skins are spray finished on one of three finishing lines. After finishing each skin is regraded, trimmed, area measured and packed ready for the customer.

Power supply

In recent years they have invested €1.5 million on a new electricity generating plant. The plant consists of two turbines, which are able to produce 2.6kW of electrical power. The energy generated is used to heat the water and provides electricity and heating for the tannery. Any excess electricity generated is then sold separately to a local energy supplier. The power plant has been a great success for the tannery and the investment has already paid for itself.

In the days of increased competition from low labour cost countries companies such as Inpelsa have to invest heavily in new technology. With the increased environmental burden laid at the door of many tanners it is revenue generating ideas such as the power plant which enables the tanner to invest more in the leather making side of the business.

The author would like to thank Josep Ballbè, director general, CEC-FECUR and Nicola Jackman, managing director, Henton Consulting, for their help in compiling this report. The second part of the two part Spainish leather sector survey will be published in a forthcoming edition of Leather International.