Supporting Key Enabling Technologies in Europe

The EU’s manufacturing sector is set to form a vital element of the future green economy, providing that Key Enabling Technologies (KETs) are supported. agendaNi assesses the challenges in boosting Advanced Manufacturing Technology (AMT) ecosystems across Europe.

The heightened impacts of globalisation and intensified competition from low-wage economies have dramatically altered the manufacturing landscape, both in Europe and further afield in the United States. However, Europe’s comparatively sustainable and knowledge-based society projects a bright future for its manufacturing sector, with the EU now seeking to support innovation by accelerating the rate of exploitation of Key Enabling Technologies (KETs). Indeed, the path towards achieving that objective has been outlined by The European Strategy for KETs, which seeks to reverse the decline in manufacturing to stimulate growth and jobs.

KETs, the group of six nascent technologies responsible for driving cutting-edge, sustainable economic development is comprised of micro and nanoelectronics; nanotechnology, industrial biotechnology, advanced materials, phototonics and advanced manufacturing technologies. The utilisation and future adoption of these technologies has been highlighted as an essential step along the path towards evolving and modernising the European manufacturing processes, allowing for flexible manufacturing, ambient intelligence, stimulating working environments and clean processing: a fact highlighted in the EU’s 2009 Communication on KETs. The communication highlighted the need to adapt structures across the manufacturing process: a need which has been reiterated in successive European publications since.

Horizon 2020

Much has changed in the field of KETs since the publication of the 2009 document, and the promotion of these emerging technologies has formed a core element of modern European industrial policy. The current strategy behind pioneering KETs in Europe is envisaged in the Horizon 2020 programme, which provides some analysis of the significant economic impact guaranteed by the technologies: a global market of ⇔1 trillion was estimated in 2015, whilst exports from EU countries were seen to account for 23 per cent of world exports in KETs-based products. Meanwhile, a European Competitiveness Report published in 2013 suggested growth potentials of 10-20 per cent per year, depending on the particular KET. In more particular submarkets, projected growth has been significantly larger.

It has been acknowledged that harnessing the exponential growth of KETs in European manufacturing requires a long-term vision, based on consistent and effective research. This long-term vision is envisaged in Horizon 2020, the landmark EU Research and Innovation programme supported by ⇔80 billion in funding and further investments from the private sector. Promising technological breakthroughs and a will to bring lab ideas to the international market, Horizon 2020 couples research and innovation and is at the heart of the EU’s current blueprint for smart, sustainable, inclusive growth and the generation of highly-skilled jobs. Throughout the document, a call to invest in the six fields of KET is reiterated, along with a pledge to create a “single market for ideas” regarding the development of such technologies.

“Promising technological breakthroughs and a will to bring lab ideas to the international market, Horizon 2020 couples research and innovation and is at the heart of the EU’s current blueprint for smart, sustainable, inclusive growth and the generation of highly-skilled jobs.”

Whilst the general objective of promoting KETs is envisaged within Horizon 2020, more specific goals and processes have been highlighted in other EU documents, including the Factories of the Future (FoF) multi-annual roadmap for the years 2014-2020. The FoF roadmap, in line with the New Skills Agenda for Europe, suggests the need to strengthen human capital, employability and competitiveness in the field of AMTs. A key action to advance this objective has been outlined in the Blueprint for Sectoral Cooperation, which supports the implementation of additive manufacturing across several areas of industry by identifying shortages and mismatches in technical and non-technical skills and knowledge competency in advanced manufacturing, including digital capabilities. 

Barriers to innovation

Indeed, AMTs have been continuously emphasised as one of the most valuable elements of KET. A 2017 study entitled ‘An analysis of drivers, barriers and readiness factors of EU companies for adopting advanced manufacturing products and technologies’ outlines several benefits to the European economy, and particular benefits to be enjoyed by SMEs. Reduced production cost and superior quality have both been highlighted as key benefits to small and medium-sized enterprises – the business group traditionally projected to employ KETs the most in day-to-day operation. However, the study identified that whilst the benefits of the technology are clear, significant barriers remain in place between such KETs and the businesses best-suited to employ them.

The 2017 study acknowledged that the majority of EU firms have yet to avail of AMT. Reasons behind this have been identified in a number of challenges, which include a limited investment capacity against unclear benefits, a disproportionate uptake risk, a general lack of awareness, a perception of bureaucratic complexity within public funding instruments, a lack of interdisciplinary competence and a lack of skills needed to integrate, implement and operate KETs. Much of the key challenges faced in exploiting KETs to their maximum potential lie in issues of public understanding: the study revealed a lack of clear and qualified communication around AMTs, a lack of a clear map of service providers, limited engagement with customers and limited marketing action by technology suppliers.


The same document suggests four key actions to maximise the future exploitation of KETs by European SMEs. Included as part of such key actions is the recommendation to strengthen the capacity of SMEs by improving and extending the “AMT ecosystem for SMEs” across the EU, improving the skills capacity of SMEs and providing adequate financial support for AMT diffusion. Further recommendations promote high-end AMT uptake by piloting AMTS to prospective businesses in cooperation with research and technology organisations (RTOs) as well as other relevant AMT firms. Proposals are also raised in regard to improving the AMT offering to manufacturing firms by promoting new business models for technology providers and machine builders, allowing their SME clients to invest under uncertain conditions.

Beyond supporting the effective diffusion of AMTs, the EU research also recommends strengthening policy coordination in order to further exploit KETs to their maximum potential. “While many pertinent support measures are already available in the EU, their coordination across different policy-making levels needs to be improved to reinforce synergies… and to offer SMEs a more straightforward and coherent policy framework,” recommends the study. “This is particularly important in view of the introduction of new measures and tools in forthcoming policy programmes and initiatives.”

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