Thanks to Philips in the last century, Brabant already has a strong base, but is the current platform in this sector enough to permanently establish the province as a leader in HTSM?
Brabant continues to strengthen its position as a flagship location for the Dutch and European High Tech Systems and Materials (HTSM) sector. To achieve this, the province targets cooperation between government, industry and research organisations at national and regional level. However, continuing this success story is by no means self-evident; much will depend on the ability of stakeholders in the region to fight for their place in the face of increasingly intense global competition, an increasing requirement for flexibility and customisation in production and a global shortage of high tech skills.
About seven years ago, the Dutch government ‘officially’ recognised the HTSM sector as a Top Sector that comprises 15 focal areas, ranging from advanced instrumentation and photonics to nanotechnology and semiconductor equipment. But even before this formal recognition of the sector at government level - a move designed to encourage the availability of funds for research, development and expanding production capacity - the high-tech sector was extremely well represented in North Brabant. The strength of the infrastructure that Philips and other innovators built early in the last century has substantially contributed to creating the technology-driven ecosystem of today, which includes multinationals such as ASML, FEI (Thermo Fisher Scientific), Signify, NXP, Vanderlande and a large number of innovative small and medium-sized businesses and start-ups that operate as part of the supply chain.
Cooperation remains essential for a sector with a global footprint and which is influenced by international competitive pressure. “The sector faces a number of global factors, including increasing technical complexity, pressure to maintain the level of investment in research and development, and a global scarcity of suitable skills,” says John Blankendaal, Director of Brainport Industries.
Blankendaal explains that the main motivation for suppliers to the HTSM sector, including many SMEs, was to work together to survive at the time when Brainport Industries was set up. “We started with seven companies and now represent 107 companies of all sizes. We are fully aware that we have to cooperate in order to remain competitive.”
Willem Endhoven, director of HighTechNL, the national sector association, feels that high-tech companies in Brabant have adopted a healthy approach within the region. “What strikes me most is the typical no-nonsense practicality that you see in Brabant: let's sit down together, drink coffee and see what we have in common. This is a practice-based way of thinking that aims to achieve faster and better progress through collaboration. In the high tech industry, everything is so capital-intensive and knowledge-dependent that jointly identifying the basic principles first helps everybody establish their own niche in that complex ecosystem.”
In the context of implementing Top Sector Policy at provincial level, the Provincial Authority of North Brabant has embraced a strategy that is designed to counteract some of the weaknesses that it has identified within the regional high tech ecosystem. These include reducing the region's dependence on a few large local players, finding ways of optimising knowledge and capacity and increasing the extent to which the region's wide-ranging knowledge and expertise can be put to good use in order to generate value and increase prosperity.
The North-Brabant Development Agency (BOM) understands that the competitiveness of Brabant's HTSM sector is rooted in cost-effective production. In its long-term strategic vision, BOM writes the following: “In order to maintain its status as "Europe's heart of smart solutions", the region must continue to focus on satisfying increasing market demand for customised solutions, shorter delivery times and higher quality”. The degree of flexibility, the fast turnaround times and 24-hour production capability that are required for this mean that “the link between R&D and production, and the way in which the value chain is organised, are becoming increasingly important. A strong supply chain with healthy collaboration between suppliers and customers is essential for keeping companies in Brabant competitive.”
In its 2017-2020 Implementation Programme, the Provincial Authority of North Brabant has announced that it has targeted a minimum investment of €340 million in HTSM during this period, including a contribution of €17.5 million from its own resources. The Brainport Industries Campus, which organises and perfects cooperation between entrepreneurship, research and development and education by bringing all those activities together under one roof, plays a significant role in achieving the aspirations targeted by the Province's investment programmes.
The Fontys HTSM Expertise Centre was founded in 2013 for the purpose of applying the knowledge of research and education institutes, based on the needs of suppliers and original equipment manufacturers, i.e. the manufacturing industry. It is an outstanding example of the partnership-based approach that has been adopted to stimulate innovation in the high tech sector in the region. Kees Adriaanse, the Centre's programme manager, explains how it works: "We ask companies which problems they would like to solve with high tech and then use students to help them innovate. This process delivers new knowledge for both companies and Fontys itself.”
Every year, the centre sets up collaborations with about forty small and medium-sized enterprises and about ten of the large manufacturing companies. Adriaanse feels that the role of Fontys is to engage in applied research that builds on the fundamental research performed by universities in order to bridge the gap between the theory and practical usability with commercial benefits.
Statistics published by BOM indicate that the HTSM sector in Brabant is both large and thriving : approximately 14,000 companies and 112,000 employees are directly involved in the sector. BOM and other regional stakeholders encourage continuous innovation in production processes and products to ensure that the HTSM sector remains a prime-mover in maintaining Brabant's position as one of the most competitive industrial clusters in the world.
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