According to the EESC, the European manufacturing system can only make an effective and competitive transition to a cutting-edge digital and environmentally friendly economy when it is ready for significant investments in innovation. As the main job creators and providers, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) need particular support. The steps planned by the European Commission to facilitate better development of the manufacturing system should therefore be consistently based on real awareness of companies' – especially SMEs' – needs.
Europe occupies a leading positon in many manufacturing industries, in particular in pharmaceuticals, mechanical engineering and fashion. 20 %, or one fifth, of global investment in R&D is carried out in Europe, where a third of high-quality scientific publications are also produced.
Even more importantly, manufacturing accounts for 17.3 % of Europe's GDP and 80 % of exports.
In view of these impressive numbers, it is essential that Europe pools its forces to maintain and even strengthen this sector, said Antonello Pezzini, rapporteur of the EESC's information report on incremental innovation in high manufacturing areas.
When Europe wants to successfully reinvigorate its manufacturing industry, it must base it on a solid foundation of SMEs, with digital platforms that can take on board different technologies: production data, supply and customer chains, monitoring and quality control systems that make significant use of recycling, logistics and product customisation.
Major challenges for EU businesses, and especially SMEs, are mainly evident in the acceleration and increase of globalisation and growing competition, also with regard to the growth of new technologies (AI, big data, blockchain, etc.), and increasing demand for product efficiency and safety, sustainable production and a commitment to the circular economy.
Investment in education is key
We cannot ignore these challenges, we need to pool our strengths in order to successfully meet them. The EESC calls on Europe and its individual Member States to put in place appropriate educational strategies, which are crucial to acquiring new skills and developing new career path, underlined Mr Pezzini.
Policymakers and social partners must step up their efforts to anticipate new needs. Only with a well-educated and prepared workforce will our enterprises succeed in turning current challenges into opportunities, added CCMI-delegate Hannes Leo, who is the co-rapporteur of this report.
The new production processes require a wide variety of skills to cope with the increasing complexity of algorithms and design challenges. In the EESC's view, funding should be used to link academia with industrial policies and the labour market and to promote the conversion of struggling sectors to emerging, high-growth activities.
New policies need to provide financial support and facilitate cooperation between enterprises
The current industrial revolution uses digital models such as cloud computing and big data, and is moving towards the prospect of the internet of things and "smart" goods. Artificial intelligence is of particular importance within this process, because it has the potential to double annual growth rates within 20 years.
The EU and its Member States should particularly focus on these new models by providing the necessary financial instruments and required education strategies and thus support SMEs in adopting these new industrial and economic processes.
Europe needs to take decisive steps regarding digital technology and facilitate high tech access to SMEs. The EESC therefore calls for special measures and policies that enable SMEs to increase networking with larger companies and also to introduce incentives triggering cooperation in innovation between small and large companies, concluded Mr Pezzini.