The uptake of advanced manufacturing solutions is among the key driving forces behind Europe’s economic growth and global competitiveness. Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, digital twins and big data analytics have become essential in sustaining innovation and production capabilities for numerous European small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Against the background of digitization and global technological competition, European SMEs need to embrace the innovation-driven transformation of manufacturing towards sustainable, resource-efficient production practices.
As an industry-wide collaboration among SMEs, large enterprises, research technology organizations and academia, the Metrology Advances for Digitized Electronic Components and Systems Industry 4.0 (MADEin4) project helps SMEs embrace cost-competitive technological innovations to enhance their productivity and drive efficiency gains to stay ahead of international competitors.
SEMI, a MADEin4 consortium member, spoke with Excillum CEO Björn Hansson, COO David Lindblom, and Research Project Manager Simona Laza as well as Nearfield Instruments Managing Director and CEO/COO Roland van Vliet about the importance and impact of EU-funded projects on the innovation capacity of European SMEs.
SEMI: How does MADEin4 contribute to the innovation objectives of your companies?
Nearfield Instruments: As a metrology company, Nearfield Instruments offers high-throughput scanning probe metrology solutions for next-generation semiconductor device development and manufacturing. As a project focused on metrology, MADEin4 allows us to accelerate and expand our research and development objectives, directly at the core of our technology roadmaps. Our cooperation with various partners provides us with early-stage insights and opportunities to test and validate solutions with users.
Excillum: As leading SME in the field of high-end microfocus and nanofocus X-ray sources, Excillum participates in EU-funded projects for advancing and co-funding the exploitative research work.
Excillum’s business and long-term vision is based on leveraging advanced technology that is not yet defined. Such technology development, hence, has a very long cycle time from research initiation to a commercially available product. For SMEs, it is challenging or even impossible to self-fund research that does not pay off until many years later. The MADEin4 project contributes to Excillum’s innovation objectives by enabling collaboration with world-leading manufacturers to develop advanced metrology and inspection technologies for the semiconductor industry.
SEMI: What are the key strengths SMEs can bring to EU-funded projects?
Nearfield Instruments: One key difference between large enterprises and SMEs is agility. SMEs are by nature allowed to be more daring to come up with innovative concepts that can be quickly rejected and re-started. The only way for SMEs to remain competitive is to innovate at a fast pace. By joining EU-funded project consortia, we are able to follow and substantiate research and development trajectories in order to remain innovative and competitive in the future.
Excillum: SMEs have the capability of focusing. This means a critical number of people, typically five to 50, are completely concentrated on research and development of new technologies with minimum overhead. This critical number of people on the technology team can, with the help of EU funding, develop groundbreaking technologies much faster.
SEMI: What advice would you give SMEs pursuing innovation through EU-funded projects for the first time?
Nearfield Instruments: Big EU-funded projects like MADEin4 are heavily populated by large enterprises. Don’t let it discourage you when seeking out an EU project opportunity. Large enterprises want to work with you and rely on the innovative ideas and technological concepts developed by SMEs.
Excillum: An SME must always have the potential market in mind, knowing the prospective customers.
To embrace all the benefits and opportunities offered by EU projects, SMEs should pursue innovation, not only the funding, and it should align the company’s roadmap with the scope of the EU project. In addition, industry association membership and partnerships with industry stakeholders in EU-funded projects increases companies’ future opportunities based on increased market understanding and establishing of personal networks.
What are the benefits SMEs cooperating with global industry associations like SEMI?
Nearfield Instruments: SEMI provides guidance and direction. Being a part of an organization that deeply reflects the markets and provides technological insights can help companies tap the collective knowledge of all parties. Association with SEMI helps companies as it is a sign of seriousness and professionalism within the industry.
Excillum: An SME is by definition limited in its reach due to its size. Hence the network and contacts provided by industry associations are a valuable extension of its reach. This can be used for technology validation, business model creation and prospecting. Associations also serve as channels for insights on business trends and provide opportunities to network with large enterprises, research technology organizations and other SMEs.
Official disclaimer: MADEin4 has received funding from the ECSEL JU under grant agreement No 826589. The JU receives support from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary, Romania and Israel.
Marek Kysela is EU policy and project coordinator at SEMI Europe.