by Giuliana Miglierini
The availability of a robust framework to support a sustainable European manufacturing system is undoubtedly a priority in the challenging times we are experiencing. In the pharmaceutical sector, the reshoring of productions of both active ingredients and finished medicinal products is already a key point of the new EU Pharmaceutical Strategy and of the consequent ongoing revision of the legislation governing the sector.
A broader action addressed to the entire European industrial system was launched in 2019 within the framework programme Horizon Europe (HE) 2021-2027: the Made in Europe manufacturing partnership aims to become the main driver for sustainable manufacturing in Europe. The partnership was modelled with the contribution of the European Commission, member states and the European Factories of the Future Research Association (EFFRA); the latter is also the leading entity in charge of coordinating the initiative, which include all actors taking part to the manufacturing ecosystem (i.e. academia, industry, non-governmental organisations and the public sector).
The main goals of the Made in Europe partnership
The two themes of ecological and digital transitions central to the policies of the von der Leyen Commission are the main source of inspiration for the Made in Europe partnership. The availability of a European manufacturing environment able to compete on global scenarios thanks to its technological leadership is the main objective of the initiative. Many challenges need to be faced to reach it, especially in the field of the integration of technologies based on artificial intelligence to fully exploit the potential of industrial data, the reshaping of a circular economy and a high flexibility in response to emerging trends and issues.
The Made in Europe partnership represents a common platform for national and regional manufacturing technology initiatives, including the required disciplines and technologies. The principles governing its actions are described in a guidance document available at the EFFRA website; a Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA) is also available.
According to the guidance document, manufactured goods represented in 2018 83% of EU exports, and accounted for a annual trade surplus of 286 billion euro. Despite this very high surplus, the document warns it may be not sufficient to cover deficits arising from the purchase of non-manufactured goods and services. Also considering these factors, the balance moved from a surplus of € 22 billion in 2017 to a deficit of € 25 billion in 2018. This situation may now dramatically evolve further, due to the high increase of costs of energy and raw materials experienced in the last month, as a consequence of the war occurring at the Eastern boundaries of the EU. A situation that might make harder for the EU to also face the competition of Asiatic economies.
The guidance document identifies twelve challenges to be faced by the European manufacturing industry, starting from the need to strongly reduce to the minimal level its environmental impact. To this instance, optimisation of resource efficiency and the carbon intensity of the entire supply chains are among the main factors to be addressed, leading to the opportunity for European-made environmental-friendly but high-priced products. This switch also supports the development of circular models for the economy, and the use of next-generation sustainable materials and products, requiring to manage profound changes if the manufacturing systems and related supply chains. Recycling and re-manufacturing may play in the future an important role in redefining products’ life cycle. The resilience and agility of the European manufacturing industry shall be also tackled, in order to limit the impact of sudden crisis, as occurred with the Covid-19 pandemic or now with the Ukraine war. This goal calls for the availability of flexible and reconfigurable production lines within a country or region, suggests the document. The pharmaceutical sector already experienced criticalities during the Covid-19 arising from the dependence from extra-EU supplies; the same applies to all European industrial sectors, and according to the Made in Europe partnership it should be faced through achieving manufacturing sovereignty and technological leadership in key areas and critical value chains. A very challenging objective, that requires a coordinated European effort on manufacturing.
As for competition from other economies, the document warns that big public-private manufacturing partnerships are being launched also in Asia and America (i.e. Made in China). Environmental and social aspects should be jointly considered in the location/relocation of manufacturing companies, to account for the environmental sustainability of the businesses coupled to the requirements arising from a EU’s population mainly living in urban areas.
The challenges of digitalisation
Many of the above-mentioned targets identified by the Made in Europe partnership may benefit from the potential offered by the implementation of digital technologies to accelerate innovation and industrial transformation, thus leading to the improvement of the overall efficiency of manufacturing. Data are becoming a central driver for the creation of value, but companies are called to better understand the data economy also from a non-technological point of view. Cybersecurity should be also carefully addressed, as digitalisation is reflected by a higher vulnerability to cyber attacks.
Digitalisation also impacts on the availability of new business models, such as “manufacturing-as-a-service” and “collaborative product-service engineering”. Automated systems governed by artificial intelligence are now widely available in many industrial plants, and attention should be paid to modes of interactions between collaborative robots and human operators. Nevertheless, the availability of trained and skilled human staff is considered as a major barrier and threat by the Made in Europe partnership, particularly for SMEs.
The planned actions
Six different calls for actions in the field of green and digital transitions were launched by the Made in Europe manufacturing partnership within the Horizon Europe work programme 2021-2022. The total available budget is around € 1 billion. Topics of interest included AI enhanced robotic systems for smart manufacturing, zero-defect manufacturing towards zero-waste, laser-based technologies for green manufacturing, manufacturing technologies for bio-based materials, advanced digital technologies for manufacturing, and data-driven distributed industrial environments.
The Made in Europe partnership was also involved in calls about reconfigurable production process chains, products with complex functional surfaces, excellence in distributed control and modular manufacturing, intelligent work piece handling in a full production line, ICT Innovation for manufacturing sustainability in SMEs, and digital tools to support the engineering of a circular economy.
A consultation on possible topics to be included in the HE work programme 2023-2024 is still open to comments and can be accessed by the dedicated webpage at the EFFRA website. A summary document is also available presenting potential recommendations and discussion topics received up to now. New possible lines of actions may address the availability of “excellent, responsive and smart factories & supply chains” , how to achieve a circular products and climate- neutral manufacturing, new use models referred to new integrated business, product-service and production approaches, and models for a human-centered and human-driven manufacturing innovation.