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The European Metal Manufacturing Hotspots

Posted by Bert Maes on October 13, 2010

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During the past 8-10 years companies in metal processing (manufacturing articles on turning and milling machines, treatment and coating of metals, and mechanical engineering) have prospered. Between 2000 and 2006 the European Metalworking and Metal Articles (MMA) employment have grown 8%, whereas basic metals and electrical engineering saw diminishing people. Split in sub-sectors the metal processing industry saw an increase of 15% in employment opportunities (from 1,5 to 1,75 million).

So even though technology has advanced, it has not replaced people. Even today, in the midst of the economic recession, the prospects for growth in metal parts output over the next 16 months look very good. EU added value metal products seem to be in demand!

But the European historically strong knowledge base is eroding. Companies report skills shortage as having a major negative impact on the competitiveness of the sector. It threatens the attractiveness of the EU to MMA firms as a place to locate production and R&D.

More and more technological development has lead to automation of production and increasing need of a capable force of hands-on, practical engineers with knowledge and skills in technologies, processes, management, languages and teamwork, with a focus on critical thinking, problem solving and adaptability skills. These skills will be the foundation for economic growth and prosperity.

Despite these well-known trends, only a few regions in Europe is stimulating the relevant streams of education.

GERMANY: South Westphalia

Germany -first of all- is dominant in manufacturing. It is the single largest producer of MMA goods, generating 25% of all EU27 metal output and responsible for 20% (860,000) of employment in the EU MMA industry.

The manufacturing hotspot of Germany is located in the south-west part of Nordrhein-Westfalen. The 600 MMA enterprises (with 140,000 employees) are focused on steelwork fabrication, vessels, containers, steam-generating boilers, cars, cutlery, wire and springs.

The region depends heavily on its metal sector: 53,8% of the companies in the region with more than 20 employees belong to the MMA sector. 1/4th of the region’s employees work in metal products and mechanical engineering. Manufacturing is THE generation of the regional wealth and prosperity.

Besides investments in slim administration, efficiency of equipment via automated processes, and personnel productivity, the region has got a very strong skills base due to the high number of quality vocational schools and universities.

Authorities see vocational schools and training institutions as a central piece for maintaining the competitive position of South Westphalia, as they are the prime source of innovation and knowledge renewal for many SMEs.

To strengthen the educational investments, NEMAS has been developed: a platform of cooperation between machine building firms and with colleges, universities and research institutions. The network develops projects towards

  • improved skills in engineering, design and management
  • collaboration in R&D
  • spurring children’s interest in technical subjects, already from the kindergarten years (see video Miniphänomenta).

ITALY: Brescia

Italy is the second powerhouse of EU MMA manufacturing. With the Italian output of 19,7%, Germany and Italy create combined almost 50% of the metal output in Europe.

The Brescia region is a cluster of 6000 internationally connected MMA SMEs in iron and steel industry, pots and pans manufacturing, weapons, machine tools, cars and industrial vehicles. The sector focuses on R&D investments, networking, internationalization (close contact with Germany), IT technology and niche products to maintain and grow its importance in the world. Consequently two service centers have been created:

  • AQM offering competitivity-enhancing technical and organization solutions, as well as technical training.
  • CSMT specializing in training and technical services and applied research from universities to the Brescian industry.

FRANCE: Pays de la Loire

France generates 11% of the metalworking output in the EU, in 45,000 companies with 462,000 employees. From them, 4000 companies and 120,000 employees are located in the Pays de la Loire region for the food machinery, aviation, shipbuilding and automotive industries.

In 2005, 71 innovative clusters were created in the area, initiating R&D projects involving 10,000 researchers.  One of the clusters is called ECM2, founded by a.o. Airbus and Renault around composite and metallic subjects, in association with inter-regional networks and 14 engineering schools. Together they develop better composite materials and processes via capital expenditures, set up collaborative engineering and local training programs for highly skilled manpower and share knowledge in new business opportunities.

SPAIN: Basque country

Spain is responsible for 9% of the metal manufacturing output in the EU, as well as 9% of the employment (378,000). As such MMA firms are important employers in Spain, delivering essential products and parts to other industries. For 60%, the Basque industry supplies to multinationals and other large international companies in the sectors rail and shipbuilding, automotive, aeronautics, aerospace and moulds & dies.

The Basque region is highly successful due to its long and focused support from the government. After severe economic recessions, dedicated strategic clusters were formed in 1988. One of them is the Machine Tool cluster that built a strong network and trust between machine tool companies and related industries. Especially the fundamental commitment to innovation (5% of the turnover is reinvested in R&D ), joint work in technology, promotion and training and the broad range of products with embedded flexibility and adaptability, are in this region the key to competitiveness.

  • The Machine Tool Industrial Research Foundation (INVEMA) offers technological and management services and promotes inter-company collaboration programs.
  • INNOBASQUE is the Basque Innovation Agency, a non-profit association established to coordinate and promote innovation throughout the Basque Country and to encourage entrepreneurial spirit and creativity at all levels.
  • IHM², the Machine Tool Institute, is focused on MMA training courses, fundamental to the competitiveness of the Basque economy.

AUSTRIA: Vorarlberg

Austria is another key player in European manufacturing. Vorarlberg, in the western-most region of Austria, is in economic terms one of the best-performing regions of Western Europe, with flourishing textile, clothing, electronics, machinery and packaging sectors. The 100 MMA companies in the region (12500 employees) manage to survive with investments in skills education and quality towards profitability. The V.E.M. (Vorarlberger Elektro- und Metall Industrie) is established to increase collaboration between enterprises and educational establishments. Companies, for example, are sponsoring the schools in terms of technical equipment.

The Economic Chamber of Vorarlberg has taken several initiatives to promote interest in technical qualifications:

  • The “Schaffar”-day in which children from the 3rd and 4th grades are invited to visit local companies. In 2008, 1700 children participated.
  • The “up2work”-day, a similar initiative for 5th to 6th grades in the primary school. In 2009 a total of 1900 children visited 160 local companies for a day of work.
  • 7th to 8th graders are invited to visit the BIFO fair for advice on education and profession.
  • FITFrauen in technische Zukunftsberufe (Women in future technological professions) which every year invites girls from the 7th to 9th grades to visit companies and technical schools along with their teachers.

Such actions support the development of a highly skilled workforce able to deliver high-value products with a high degree of customization.


The Metalworking and Metal Aricles (MMA) industry is present in virtually every corner of the EU. And for many countries manufacturing is critical for its economy and wealth. Some countries are notably known for their low labor costs. But often substandard innovation and skills are the result.

Educational programs in which students from an early age get exposed to manufacturing technologies in an entrepreneurial manner, therefore, are central to stimulating the competitiveness of the industry and create innovative companies.

Main source of information: 2009 Report Competitiveness of the EU Metalworking and Metal Articles Industries

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