Industry 4.0: an opportunity for SMEs

By Slawomir TOKARSKI, Director of innovation and advanced Manufacturing, DG GROW European Commission

Manufacturing is among the key driving forces of the European economy. It provides about 20% of all jobs in Europe (above 30 million) and generates a turnover of about €7 000 billion in 25 industrial sectors and over 2 million
companies, dominated by SMEs. Against a background of trends such as globalisation, resource scarcity and digitalisation, European manufacturing sectors need to undergo innovation-driven transformations towards more competitive, sustainable and modern production. Industrial modernisation is thus of crucial relevance for economic dynamism in Europe and the lasting creation of growth and jobs in the EU.

Europe still has a dominant position in advanced manufacturing technologies in terms of share of patents (40%) and share in total exports (44%). We also have numerous examples of SMEs having successfully transformed their business by adopting digital and key enabling technologies and business models. These companies boosted their growth or strongly recovered after difficult times. Improved quality of products and services, reduced production lead time, improved resource efficiency and employees’ productivity are important drivers for companies to invest and transform their business.

But many SMEs struggle to embrace the Industry 4.0 revolution. The uptake of advanced manufacturing solutions by them
remains a challenge: only one in five manufacturing companies have already used advanced manufacturing solutions1 and some reports even claim that the age of installed process technology in Europe increases rather than decreases.

A recent study2 shows that for nearly three quarters of the firms, the most important barrier is the high cost of investments in advanced manufacturing acquisition and the lack of financial resources. About half of all firms indicate difficulties in assessing the performance and the potential business return of such technologies and/or the lack of skilled personnel required to adopt relevant technologies and business models.

Therefore, we are providing targeted support to help SMEs to move towards smart and sustainable production.

First, we aim to ensure that SMEs have easy access to state-of-the art facilities and can make informed investment decisions.

Technology centres sharing their equipment and expertise with SMEs are important to accelerate innovation and to bridge the gap between the laboratory and industrial application. However, our mapping of technology centres active in key enabling technologies shows that in 60% of EU Member States, SMEs are not likely to find the technology services
they need. The solution lies in collaboration between centres with regional access points. As part of the Digitising European Industry initiative, the Commission is focusing 500M€ investment from Horizon 2020 on digital innovation hubs. This is an important step. As a pilot, the Commission will also support a network of technology centres to provide services to SMEs in advanced manufacturing for clean production. More networks and innovation hubs in advanced technologies will follow.


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