If we want Europe to gain market share in developing technology for smart devices like phones and tablets, we must embrace public–private partnerships, according to Dr Andreas Wild, executive director of the EU’s new Electronic Components and Systems for European Leadership (ECSEL) Joint Technology Initiative.
Why is electronics so important to the EU?
‘Back in June 2011 the European Commission’s High-Level Group on Key Enabling Technologies recognised certain technologies as being important for Europe, and one of these technology areas was micro- and nanoelectronics, including semiconductors. In a nutshell, nanoelectronics provides the ‘smart’ in everything. If you have a smartphone, it’s smart because there’s a chip inside with software embedded in it and functionalities integrated around it. A smart card is not smart because of the fancy plastic, but because behind the gold pattern there is a chip with embedded software and integrated functionalities. Likewise, every smart object is smart because of the chip inside – and that’s micro- and nanoelectronics. There are economic implications of being able to make smart products, and there are also strategic implications in safety, security, autonomy and independence.’
It’s obviously a very competitive market. Why does it need the EU’s help?
‘In global competition we do not face a level playing field. Other regions of the world provide strong support to industries that are seen as being strategically significant, and in the last ten years Europe has continuously lost market share to its global competitors. We need strong action in Europe in which private and public investors get together to reverse the trend. You might ask, why is that not happening at the national level? The answer is that it is an extremely capital-intensive industry. We reached a point where we realised that this task is a stretch for many national economies, whereas it is affordable for the European economy as a whole. Consequently combining national and European funding, while including the private sector, is a winning combination. In fact, ECSEL will be the only joint undertaking where the projects are co-funded by the participating states, and not just by Europe.’
‘All the industrial branches of the European economy will have access to this technology – because without it, they cannot be globally competitive.’
Dr Andreas Wild, executive director, ECSEL
How is funding allocated?
‘The grants are only given for actions that implement a strategy – and that strategy has been agreed on through dialogue between the private sector and the public authorities. In our governing structure, we have a private members’ board that defines the industry’s direction, and a public authorities’ board that approves the selections and funding.’
What is the strategy?
‘One of the objectives is to become one of the instruments implementing Horizon 2020, the EU’s EUR 80 billion research and innovation programme – and that means the activities involve advancing state-of-the-art technology, rather than industrial development. A main objective of ECSEL is to lead the way in the areas of semiconductors, embedded software, and smart system integration.’
Can you give an example of one of the developments in semiconductors?
‘ECSEL will be an autonomous organisation – a Joint Undertaking – combining smart system integration research driven by the European Technology Platform EPoSS with a merger of the ARTEMIS (embedded systems) and the ENIAC (nanoelectronics) Joint Technology Initiatives set up in 2008, building on their successes. For instance, ENIAC was instrumental in helping Europe develop probably the best technology worldwide for portable computing, enabling the highest computing performance for the lowest current consumption. That means you can do a lot more with the same battery. Take smartphones – people today expect their phones to show movies and all kinds of other things, and that requires intensive battery consumption.’
What about software?
‘Let’s take an example. Have you ever experienced a computer programme crashing right before you could save your work? You probably have – but would this be acceptable for the software controlling a car driving at full speed on the motorway? Well, ARTEMIS managed to create the largest programme that has ever focused on safety-critical systems. It supported a number of correlated yet complementary projects that developed methods, processes and tools for system engineering, implementation and formal verification. That has assured the interoperability of software modules from different contributors to guarantee lifelong, built-in safety, reliability and robustness – in applications from the automotive industry to rail, aerospace, industrial automation and life-support systems.
‘Now, the final objective – smart system integration – brings everything together to create smart devices. This is what allows us to make the enormous computing power of a smartphone fit inside your pocket – including not only the visible components like the plastic case and the screen, but also all the other components surrounding the chip that you never see, such as antennas, microphones, loudspeakers, camera, and so on.’
How will the average European citizen benefit from this?
‘There are two main benefits. The first is that all the industrial branches of the European economy will have access to this technology – because without it, they cannot be globally competitive. Can the European economy rely 100 % on importing these capabilities? The answer is no. We must have our own sources to be masters of our destiny. And not just to be competitive – there are also security and independence aspects. Secondly, mastering this technology is an essential ingredient in guaranteeing the safety and security of Europe, not only at the state level but also at the level of individual citizens, improving our protection against unlawful intrusions into our private lives.’
What is the most interesting aspect of what ECSEL can achieve?
‘In the innovation area, it will help us make a stronger impact and a higher contribution. But what is really interesting for me is the experimental challenge of overcoming barriers and changing attitudes to make collaboration possible. Of course, this challenge is something which the European project faces across the board, a project which may be contradictory, which does not make everybody happy, which has shortcomings – but which has continued undiminished for 50 years, and still moves dynamically towards greater cooperation. To me this is fascinating. Being able to contribute at our scale – bringing together European competences, ingenuity and organisation to create an impactful new capability – is an exciting project that fires my imagination.’
The Electronic Components and Systems for European Leadership (ECSEL) initiative is one of seven Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs) set up by the European Union to fund research by combining public and private financing.
ECSEL will combine existing research led by the European Technology Platform EPoSS by bringing together the ARTEMIS embedded systems and the ENIAC nanoelectronics Joint Technology Initiatives set up in 2008. The aim of ECSEL is to ensure Europe’s position as a global leader in the design and production of electronic components and systems which have a wide range of applications: from use in cars, planes and trains, to medical equipment, energy networks and security systems.
The estimated budget for ECSEL is around EUR 4.01 billion; with the EU contributing up to EUR 1.18 billion, Member States EUR 1.17 billion and private partners at least EUR 1.66 billion. The initiative will launch its first calls under Horizon 2020 on 9 July 2014 at a joint event in Brussels.
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