The aim of the present whitepaper is to recommend future directions for the European surface technology industry to remain relevant and competitive, and furthermore, to suggest supportive actions stimulating this development. This is done from a pan-European view based on an analysis of the present status of the competitiveness of the European surface finishing industry and the challenges it is facing. The work has been carried out by a group of European experts representing different sectors and regions.
For decades, globalisation has made offshoring of production a common activity by moving mass production to low-wage countries in Asia, but also relocation of production within Europe from the West to the East has been significant. In addition to cost reduction, vicinity to growing markets has been an important argument for relocating production. Success of offshoring has shown to depend on many more parameters and some backshoring is experienced, especially of high-tech products with the main drivers being: increasing costs at offshored facility, lack of quality, limitation in lead time and flexibility, limited access to skills and knowledge, risk of losing know-how and IP, and brand equity. Increasing production automation counteracts offshoring and Europe holds in general a strong position and a strong trend in automation.
Surface finishing is not a stand-alone industry, but an integrated part of manufacturing of most products and thereby an integrated part of the manufacturing chain and follows the rest of the manufacturing if offshored. The European surface finishing sector has an estimated annual turnover of US$ 114 Bn and employs around 900 000 people, and has had an annual growth rate of 3.6% during the last decade. We will soon learn how this is affected by the ongoing pandemic. The sector accounts for about 5% of all manufacturing of products. About 1/3 of the surface finishing is estimated to be done by sub-contractors and 2/3 in-house. The average size of European subcontractors is stable at between 11 and 12 employees with the majority having less than 10 employees, which is a challenge for the future development.
Since surface finishing is an integrated part of manufacturing, it is not recommended to create a European strategy for bringing back offshored surface finishing. Already offshored production might soon be obsolete due to technological changes. Instead it is recommended that the European surface finishing sector prioritises advanced production technology for new high-tech and high added value products, and take advantage of disruptive changes in society and technology shifts where completely new areas of application of surface technology can arise, e.g. within sustainable energy systems.
To be successful, surface finishers should meet expectations to the following selling points: Price, quality, short lead time, innovation ability, meeting legislation, and brand equity. This is challenging, especially for the many small firms, and should be obtained by increased automation, close cooperation between all functions and partners in the value chain, and secured and improved competence supply for all functions involved.
Basically, the solution can be described as improved education and improved organization between applied research, product development, production development and manufacturing. Each year tens of thousands of new employees are entering the surface finishing sector to cover many different functions (operators, engineers, experts, salesmen, managers, etc), but the present education and training programmes do not offer the needed capacity. Instead many new employees have to rely on in-house training, which is extra critical for small firms that need to meet new demands on technology implementation, legislation, etc. There is a strong need for pan-European actions to coordinate and expand education and training offered by schools, universities and professional associations across Europe.
Overall competence and better theoretical understanding leads to better reliability, quality, and cost-efficiency. It becomes easier to communicate between the different actors in the value chain stimulating efficient technology transfer from academia to supply house and practitioner in industry and increase innovation support to speed up the innovation rate.
Students must be attracted to choose an education and career related to surface technology even though the field is less visible, since it is not a branch of industry with its own separate products. Coordinated actions are needed to market surface technology/finishing as an interesting field with direct impact on daily life and essential for the future development of society.
Europe has a strong tradition in surface finishing and the sector is characterized by a significant diversity (specialisation). The right competence supply and organisation can make ‘cooperative diversity’ a European stronghold.
Within its stated role the EAST intention is to act to facilitate the recommended development supporting the surface finishing sector.
- Peter Leisner, Jönköping University, Sweden, east president
- Clive Larson, Institute of Materials Finishing (IMF), UK, invited expert
- Lars Pleth Nielsen, Danish Technological Institute, Denmark, east board member
- Stefan Müller, Airbus Helicopters, Germany, invited expert
- Wolfgang Hansal, RENA Technologies Austria GmbH, Austria, east executive board member
- Jean-Claude Puippe, Steiger Galvanotechnique SA, Switzerland, east board member
- Andreas Zielonka, FEM, Germany, east executive board member