Last month, Flanders Make welcomed companies, researchers, and robotics and digitalisation enthusiasts to their Leuven facilities for COTEMACO’s last-ever project conference. ‘Future-proofing European SMEs through Digitalization & Robotization’ marked the culmination of the 4-year long Interreg North-West Europe project which has supported 65 companies from the automotive, agro-food, and flexible assembly sectors in future-proofing their business through the exploration of cobots (collaborative robots) and other digital solutions.
Personalised SME coaching = increased resilience
During the hybrid event, ZeMA shared some impressive statistics resulting from the personalised coaching service, part of the COTEMACO SME Support Programme. One of the project’s key objectives was to not only maintain and improve jobs and their working conditions, but also create new jobs for SMEs. COTEMACO well and truly achieved this, by maintaining over 1250 jobs and creating over 285 new ones!
Around 70% of the 65 SMEs received support for an automation solution, of which approximately a quarter were direct cobot applications, while 85% of the SMEs have implemented, are implementing, or are planning to implement the developed results.
The participating companies were also asked to share feedback on their experience once the support came to an end. Most participants (74%) were either satisfied or very satisfied with the support given, while the rest shared “neutral” feedback, or could not provide any.
“Welcome to the robotic revolution”
Janet Bellamy, Associate Professor of Digitalisation and Food Processing at the UK’s National Centre for Food Manufacturing (a satellite campus of the University of Lincoln) walked attendees through the robotic revolution – taking them beyond the digitalisation of Industry 4.0 and into the year 2030.
Janet revealed that while futurists predicted that we would have 300 thousand unfillable vacancies in manufacturing by 2030, we already have 1.2 million unfilled vacancies in 2022. Driven by low birth rates, COVID-19, and global displacement, our workforce is shrinking, yet demand for manufactured goods is rising. However, adopting robotics and digital technologies, quickly, will allow the industry to survive.
“There will be regional and national vulnerabilities that governments and policy makers need to mitigate for, but for our sectors to be resilient and competitive, we need to adopt robotic and digital technology at a much faster pace than history has shown. There will be displacement into other sectors and regions, but not mass unemployment as originally feared.”
She added, “Over 54% of all manufacturing tasks have been identified as suitable for robotic and digital solutions, yet the adoption rate is below 10%.”
To demonstrate the clear benefits of adopting such solutions, Janet presented the One Planet Pizza case study. Within the COTEMACO SME Support programme, Janet and her colleagues assessed One Planet Pizza’s current production processes and provided an automation roadmap to support the growth of the business. Thanks to the roadmap, the company saw a 30% increase in productivity!
Read our interview with co-founder Mike hill here.
Digital Innovation in Manufacturing: a trans-sectoral review
Andrea Paoli, Founding Head of Digital Agriculture Unit at Fondazione Edmund Mach, provided a revealing forecast of digital innovations in manufacturing, particularly food manufacturing.
After covering the sector’s current typical challenges like food manipulation, complex operations, hygienic design, flexibility, safety, and efficient training, Andrea introduced attendees to the concept of Food 4.0 – the future of food manufacturing. This industry shift will see great improvements in:
- Productivity, skills, and conditions – through Digital Interactive AR/VR Learning, cobots, and lean automation
- Quality, efficiency, and safety – through Sensor Networks, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Condition Monitoring, and Predictive Maintenance
- Security, traceability, and labelling – with blockchain
- Planning and compliance – with Cloud/Web Services and Fin-Tech.
Innovation and resilience: Interreg NWE funding opportunities
Inge Keymeulen, the COTEMACO project officer also provided the audience with an overview of the 2021-2027 Interreg North-West Europe programme period. She presented the main priorities and themes (Climate and environment, Energy transition, Circular economy, Innovation and resilience, and Inclusive society), the types of projects and activities that can be funded, as well as the parties eligible to apply.
Inge advised, “The programme encourages the involvement of a wide range of organisations that can contribute to and are affected by actions undertaken by projects. However, while the quadruple helix principle is important, projects should first and foremost design their partnerships in line with the project needs and ensure that the project objective and planned results are met.”
COTEMACO: What’s next?
The project partners remain committed to developing methods and tools to support SMEs in introducing digital technologies and have formed an alliance to exchange knowledge and experiences. The alliance is open to any organisation with similar ambitions, so get in touch if you are interested!
The team would like to sincerely thank all attendees of both the in-person and online sessions for their interest and participation. If you weren’t lucky enough to join, you can download some of the presentations by clicking the links below.
- ZeMA – Personalised coaching results
- ZeMA – Success Stories
- Andrea Paoli – Digital Innovation in Manufacturing: a trans-sectoral review
- University of Lincoln – The robotic revolution and the year 2030
- One Planet Pizza case study
- Interreg NWE: A look at programming period 2021-2027
- Food Tech Brainport – Mariën case study
- Flanders Make – Anziplast case
- COTEMACO – what’s next?