This article is part of our special report Additive manufacturing, engine of industrial revival.
The European Commission backs additive manufacturing as one of the pillars to strengthen its industrial sector and step up efforts to maintain the EU’s global advantage.
Europe is looking for durable sources of economic growth. As the ECB will soon start phasing out its massive monetary stimulus, the EU authorities see trade deals as a valid tool to boost European GDP. Within our borders, the European Commission and experts acknowledge that the industrial sector still holds a great untapped potential, in particular against the backdrop of the ongoing industrial revolution.
Within our borders, the European Commission and experts acknowledge that the industrial sector still holds a great untapped potential, in particular against the backdrop of the ongoing industrial revolution.
“The issue is not whether manufacturing is or should be important for economies, nor is it how many manufacturing jobs to have or save,” the Bruegel think tank said in a study published last week.
The authors called for creating the right conditions for facilitating higher-value added jobs across sectors.
EU officials explained that Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is expected to announce during his state of the union address on 13 September a new industrial policy communication to review the progress made in this field and the opportunities ahead in the context of the digital disruption.
The communication, part of the Commission’s work programme for 2018, should provide a “holistic EU industrial policy strategy for the future”, including medium to long-term strategic goals, the Council requested last May.
In the context of the emerging megatrends, the executive already identified advanced manufacturing, including additive manufacturing, as one of the six technologies that could contribute the most to the industrial rejuvenation in Europe.
Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, was the first and one of the most visible technologies brought by the digital revolution introduced in the European industry, EU officials underlined.
In order to support this priority with €95 million in financing, the Commission backed 21 projects between 2014-2016 through Horizon 2020, its research programme.
Print an Airbus
The introduction of 3D printing in industrial processes has helped reduce the cost of manufacturing in high-value sectors like aeronautics, or in cases where the economies of scales are difficult to apply, like processing spare parts for machines.
For example, the Airbus A350 contains more than 1000 3D printed flight parts, mostly not critical parts.
By doing this, aircraft parts weigh 30% to 55% less, while reducing raw material used up to 90%, an important advantage in such a competitive sector.
But it was the automotive industry that pioneered the use of 3D printing technologies. From prototypes, its use was extended to final parts as in the case of eco-efficient cars, and more recently in the realm of F1.
Bringing back jobs
Once this technology gains ground across Europe, experts believe it could help bring back to Europe skilled jobs that have been offshored in recent years.
Additive manufacturing will make “manufacturing on demand” more economically feasible, which would enable placing factories closer to the demand.
“With robots, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and other advanced manufacturing technologies, the cost of labour will be a less important factor in deciding where to locate manufacturing facilities and jobs. As a result, production of industrial goods might as well take place in high-wage western countries. If this is indeed happening, we should see in the aggregate data an end to offshoring and even signs of re-shoring, at least of the return of jobs that were offshored in search of lower labour costs,” the Bruegel report reads.
Despite tough competition from Israel, the US and Japan in plastic additive manufacturing and hybrid manufacturing, and China in bioprinting, the bloc still maintains a leading role in the field, officials said.
Europe also remains a world leader in metal manufacturing, as well as other cutting-edge areas such as biomedical 3D printing.
But as the EU executive already warned in a report last year, Europe’s capabilities in this field remain fragmented and barriers are still numerous.
Industry representatives and EU officials agreed that providing the right set of skills and education, intellectual property rights, standardisation and more research funding are some of the top priorities.
“It is imperative to act fast and determined,” said Filip Geerts, director general of the European Association of the Machine tool Industries (CECIMO) in a recent position paper.
At an operational level, additive manufacturing in Europe still misses some capabilities or need to address some flaws in order to reap all the benefits.
According to the European Commission’s report, national and regional authorities should facilitate access to critical materials needed for additive manufacturing, including titanium, aluminium, magnesium.
Besides, Europe should acquire some missing capabilities, for example during the finishing process (Hot Isostatic Pressing in the field of metal additive manufacturing).
The bloc also faces important challenges at early stages, including during the simulation and the testing phases.
Despite these outstanding issues, officials and the industry are confident that Europe can remain at the forefront of the global race for dominance in a cutting-edge industrial sector.
For that to happen, the Commission acknowledged that smaller manufacturers must be on board of this digital transformation from the outset.
As a result, the EU executive is setting up a virtual support centre for advanced manufacturing for SMEs.
The European Commission published in 2012 a communication on a new industrial policy that outlined a roadmap for reindustrialising Europe. The aim was “raising the share of industry in GDP from the current level of around 16 percent to as much as 20 percent in 2020”.
A new communication two years later insisted on “policies and actions for the modernisation of the industrial base and for the transition towards an ever more innovative, modern and sustainable economy".