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  • Published on 06 Jan 2021
  • Events

Beating the lockdown: EFECS 2020 opens doors and makes connections in an inspiring virtual conference

Sabine Herlitschka, CEO of Infineon Technologies Austria, kicked off EFECS 2020 with a question. “Think back one year. Could we have imagined holding the EFECS conference completely digitally? Most probably we could not have imagined still having a good exchange.”

Yet this is exactly what happened: across 17 talks and workshops and 95 virtual exhibits, the first ever online European Forum for Electronic Components and Systems reached over 900 participants on 25 and 26 November 2020. Organised annually by ARTEMIS-IA, AENEAS, EPoSS, ECSEL Joint Undertaking and the European Commission, the event also saw crucial support from Eureka and the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research. In the face of COVID-19, health was a reoccurring theme, as were transparency, climate change and technological sovereignty. In this overview, we take a look at how such issues shaped the conference as a whole.

Setting our own rules

EFECS 2020 can best be summarised through its tagline: ‘Technology that works for people’. This means different things to different participants, but all corners of the ECS value chain share a common vision of a technologically autonomous Europe. In their introduction to the event, Sabine Herlitschka and ARTEMIS President Jean-Luc di Paola-Galloni highlighted their own takes on this.

“As painful as the pandemic is, it shows us what really matters to us and what our weaknesses are,” noted Sabine. “Digitalisation has arrived in everyone’s lives. In Europe, we generate data but don’t really utilise it. We need to look at our digital sovereignty and we now have the opportunity to create our new framework.”

Jean-Luc echoed this. “The current context has given us a sense of humbling. On the other hand, we are experiencing an acceleration of what digitalisation can bring to our lives in terms of solutions. This pandemic has been something of a wake-up call for our continent. It’s very important to solidify the value chain from the very first pillars, from nano and micro up to smart systems and embedded systems. We need to fight for innovations where we are still ahead – whether this is applications in health, mobility or smart manufacturing – but we also need to play by the right rules and smartly protect our standards in terms of data protection and carbon neutrality.” 

COVID-19 and the new normal

These challenges and opportunities were at the heart of EFECS, particularly in the panel discussion on the impact of COVID-19 on European ECS value chains and plans for recovery. As explained by Shahid Ali, general practitioner and director of Dynamic Health Systems, the healthcare impacts of the pandemic are actually fourfold: (1) deaths due to COVID-19, (2) deaths through the disruption of urgent health services, (3) interrupted care for chronic diseases and (4) increased mental illness. “Why am I telling you this?” he asked. “Because everything has changed. Most of our consultations are now carried out on the telephone, by telemedicine or by receiving pictures. AI, platforms, data management and even edge computing come into this and Europe is in a fantastic place to develop these further.”

In this new normal, ECS’s position as a backbone for many other value chains is even clearer. In spite of the recessions caused by COVID-19 and the global trade wars of recent years, the ECS market is expected to grow by 6-8% in 2021. “The pandemic has accelerated the digitisation of the economy as we all rely on digital technologies to work from home,” pointed out Lucilla Sioli, Director of Artificial Intelligence and Digital Industry at the European Commission. “But the economy is transforming not only because of COVID but also because of a transition from the cloud to more importance for edge computing. In Europe, we’re very strong in the production of low power and elements and components that safeguard security and safety, which is all very relevant to this.” This strength is key to building trust in new technologies, in turn increasing the uptake of telehealth to help manage recovery from the pandemic. Lucilla also suggested open-source architectures as an alternative route for Europe to avoid dependence on other regions, having proven popular in academia.

COVID-19 has been a slow-motion stress test for all systemic elements of society, but Key Digital Technologies (KDT) have proven notably resistant. The opportunity to link increasing digitisation to a greener economy has therefore not gone unnoticed by the new commission, which has set both of these as key priorities for its term. According to Michael Wiesmüller of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Transport, Innovation and Technology, “digital will help in all domains, definitely not only industry but also health, education and retail. The recovery might accelerate the green and digital transformations and KDT should be at the heart of both. Green KDT represents the very best in the toolbox of mankind to fight climate change.”

ICT for Green versus GreenICT

This theme was discussed in more depth during the opening session of day two, ‘ECS contributions to the Green Deal objectives’. The European Green Deal, which should make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, will be built on years of R&D research – some of which has taken decades to reach its current potential. Extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV), for instance, is now flourishing after 20 years of preparation. When planning so far into the future, however, it is important to remember than digitisation is not inherently green. In 2019, 3.7% of global CO2 emissions were the result of ICT.

“My message,” said Stefan Mengel, Head of the Electronics and Autonomous Driving Division of Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research, “is that we clearly need to show the contributions of ECS and work on clear figures, use-cases and relationships between what CO2 reductions are caused by which type of technology. We need to distinguish between ICT for Green and GreenICT. ICT for Green is established: we use ICT to improve energy consumption in other areas. But the innovation lies in the other sector. GreenICT means reducing energy consumption by ICT technologies themselves.” ECS contributions to this latter category are numerous: edge computing brings down energy usage in data-driven environments, power electronics allows for smart, on-demand control of energy consumers in ICT and hardware/software co-design makes ICT systems more energy-efficient.

Support for the Green Deal has also been formalised across ARTEMIS, AENEAS and EPoSS in their Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA) 2021. This has been a basis for the ECSEL programme and will shape its successor, the KDT partnership. “We’ve broadened the scope, asking people from integrated photonics and flexible electronics to contribute as well,” explained Elisabeth Steimetz, Office Director of EPoSS. “One of the main highlights is an analysis of all major challenges to come to four main objectives.” Sustainable and resilient ECS value chains which support the Green Deal is one such objective, and the SRIA’s focus on technologies for decarbonisation and recyclability form a framework for achieving this.

The ECSEL-Eureka axis

On the subject of the KDT, Eureka – the world’s largest public network for international cooperation in R&D and innovation – is gearing up to this new future and intends to remain a strong partner. Representing them on behalf of the Austrian chairmanship, Ulrich Schuh’s keynote speech was titled ‘Partnerships beyond a European horizon – systems and components’. In these times of transition, he emphasised the value of partnerships between diverse players on an equal footing with the aim of achieving common goals – particularly the strong role played by SMEs and the need for them to have access to the funding instruments that can enable them to continue their vital work. Eureka has set a marker in plans to invest a billion euros over the next few years in its Eurostars and Globalstars and is hoping that this figure can be matched by industry and a third of that figure by the European Commission. Optimism exists that the financial commitments will be positive and provide a solid basis on which to build.

Austria is now overseeing a ‘New Eureka’ which is governed by three central elements: decentralised management, variable geometry and a bottom-up principle. While this differs fundamentally from an approach which is primarily based on specific research topics within a top-down framework, these differences can be mutually beneficial. “What we see,” Schuh explained, “is that the European Commission and Eureka approaches are really quite complementary. Together, we are building an ecosystem that is crucial for European competitiveness. The New Eureka cluster programme will establish highly coordinated cooperation among all existing cluster communities and will also be open to new communities entering the Eureka cluster programme. A common multi-year work programme will be developed [along with] synchronised thematic cores, bottom up and top down, in close collaboration with public authorities and industry. Our pilot synchronised Joint Call on AI was a big success.” In concluding, Schuh underlined the very positive relationship that Eureka has had with ECSEL and looked forward to building on that fruitful relationship to solve the challenges to come.