EU urged to do more to support nanoelectronics sector

Nanoelectronic technologies are vital for Europe's strategic future and the EU must retain the capacity for their production. Desmond Hinton-Beales and Gerald Callaghan report

By Gerald Callaghan

07 Nov 2012

Europe is missing a "critical mass" of policies and money for boosting its lagging micro and nanoelectronics sector, a Parliament Magazine roundtable has heard. The event, held in the European parliament last week and organised in association with the Eniac joint undertaking, was hosted by Dutch EPP deputy Lambert van Nistelrooij.

In essence, nanoelectronics make information and communication technologies function, by building microchips which provide connectivity to products manufactured by all other industries, from home appliances to space shuttles. The sector serves as an important key enabling technology which allows Europe to produce parts for strategic items, such as aeroplanes, defence equipment and technology for smart cities. In this regard, it is of strategic importance that Europe retains its ability to produce nanoelectronic technology.

"Europe has good scientists and institutions, and wishes to be competitive [but is] missing a critical mass of policies, money and countries" - Lambert van Nistelrooij 

Van Nistelrooij said, "Europe has good scientists and institutions, and wishes to be competitive", but stressed that the EU is "missing a critical mass of policies, money and countries" to support its nanoelectronics sector. "We must translate research into projects in an integrated way, with public and private input if we are to build a bridge to a stronger position in global competition," he said.

The Eniac joint undertaking - a research programme aimed at enhancing the further integration and miniaturisation of devices and increasing their functionality – is headed up by executive director Andreas Wild who said "nanoelectronics provide the 'smart' in everything". "Smartphones, smart grids, smart cities, smart mobility. You can find chips everywhere, washing machines, cards, tablets, coffee machines. We even send chips to fight our battles now." "These are strategic technologies," stressed Wild, adding that Europe's investment in the semiconductors that make a lot of these technologies work "has diminished compared to the rest of the world". "We should not be surprised if Europe is excluded from the value chain," he warned, adding that the EU "must increase leverage in public and private investment". "All stakeholders must contribute: private sector, EU institutions, member states and joint undertakings."

"You can find chips everywhere, washing machines, cards, tablets, coffee machines. We even send chips to fight our battles now" - Andreas Wild

Components and systems director for the commission's DG connect Khalil Rouhana said, "Europe has been on the defensive for more than 10 years. There is a mindset that we don't do nano." However, Rouhana stressed that Europe still held the lead in some areas, including equipment manufacture, and said that digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes is planning a "strategic initiative" on this issue, which she will announce in the "next three to four months". "We need to build value chains of European scale and take advantage of the size of our markets," he said, adding that the EU is the "number one market for microprocessors". "There is a big chance to gain ground", he said, but stressed that there is a vital need for "European and international cooperation, with the alignment of necessary budget resources." Rouhana also highlighted the rising costs of R&D caused by the "race to innovate", which was leading to a "trend towards the teaming up of industrialists to reduce the risk of R&D spending". Europe must respond to this by "combining its instruments", he said.

"Europe has been on the defensive for more than 10 years. There is a mindset that we don't do nano" - Khalil Rouhana

Carlos Mazure, executive vice-president of the Soitec Group, said "Semiconductors represent a very strong source of revenue" and that Europe has a lot of "knowhow" which it must exploit. Mazure warned that value was being captured and jobs created outside of the EU due to its lack of "critical size", which also prevented European developments from being "adopted worldwide". "A large amount of money is needed to maintain competitiveness in a fast moving environment," he said, adding that "Samsung and Intel alone are putting several times Europe's entire budget contribution into R&D". "We need a multinational effort as there is not a strong European company to pull this together. We need billions, not millions, and fast decisions for a fast moving sector."

"We need a multinational effort as there is not a strong European company to pull this together" - Carlos Mazure

The widespread use of nanoelectronics in technology means that our lifestyle is heavily dependent on micro and nano developments said Jean-Christophe Martin, from the commission's DG enterprise and industry. Martin underlined the importance of the nanoelectronic sector to future EU security, especially in terms of surveillance through the Galileo system. The EU launched its first two Galileo satellites in October last year, and these are the first of 30 planned satellites that will allow the EU to become independent in the sector of navigation and climate monitoring. Martin said, "The open service is the most known application of the Galileo system, which is used for civilian purposes as navigation in cars and for orienteering." The public regulated service is crucial for state security, "being used for government purposes such as border control and police forces", he added. Van Nistelrooij highlighted the importance of the early operation of these satellites, saying that if politicians are able to "touch the beginning of the result" they are more likely to press for money to be spent in the nanoelectronics sector. If politicians are to decide whether they should spend money for long term gain with no short term results then it becomes difficult, as most "will doubt whether money spent will come back", said the Dutch official.

"There is a great industrial advantage to create future jobs in Europe through the nanoelectronics sector" - Michael Sieber​​

Meanwhile Michael Sieber, assistant director of research and technology at the European defence agency (EDA) gave a military user perspective. He said, "Without the nanoelectronics sector there would be no viable defence sector, and without defence, investment in nanoelectronics would not be feasible". We are arriving at a point where "autonomous smart systems" are becoming more and more important, said Sieber. The EDA aims to drive technologies while at the same time managing dependencies on technology, said the former German military officer. "We want to continue to drive technologies, but ensure non dependencies on this technology where it is not necessary." In order to do this, "continual sustainable investment is needed, but demand will always justify this investment". "There is a great industrial advantage to create future jobs in Europe through the nanoelectronics sector", said Sieber.


Information and communication technology permeates all areas of human activity, fuelled by the ever increasing capabilities and ever decreasing cost of the fabric on which it works: the nanoelectronics devices known as semiconductor “chips”. These chips provide the “smart” features in everything: smart phones, smart mobility, smart cities, smart governance… The high-level experts group established by the European commission listed nanoelectronics among the key enabling technologies in their final report issued in June 2011.
Chips used in automated coffee machines, watches, phones, tablet computers etc. are a commodity, the “make or buy” decision is based on purely economic considerations. Higher security applications like the bank cards need some control of the supply chain, while for strategic applications like critical power plants, avionics, space or defence this is a necessity.
Supported by strong public commitments, ambitious European companies successfully established and maintained leadership for more than 20 years. Unfortunately, their competitive position deteriorated in the last about five years. Five years further in the future, disruptive technology advances will put Europe at risks to loose contact with the advanced semiconductor technologies. 
The ENIAC Joint Undertaking achieved significant progress in implementing the Joint Technology Initiative in nanoelectronics, increasing the volume of the R&D projects by a factor of three in the last two years. But to successfully ensure the sustainability of the European nanoelectronics, the Joint Undertaking actions must further be strengthened and complemented by contributions from all stakeholders, including the private sector, the Member States and the European institutions.

Andreas Wild is executive director of the Eniac joint undertaking


Nanoelectronics are the backbone of many advanced technologies also used in the military context and hence part of the European defence agency's (EDA) strategic research agenda. While defence and security tasks can be supported more efficiently by “dual-use” technologies, some specifics still apply to the military: cutting edge requirements in specific operational environments, adaptive innovation cycles, limited production volumes, export restrictions. Specific attention is therefore given to technological and industrial dependencies, keeping supply chains in Europe if necessary. Only a sustainable and globally competitive European industrial base can secure future supplies.
Regarding the current “technology drain” and sinking R&D efforts by member states, action may be required in areas such as micro electronic and mechanical systems (MEMS), system-on-chip, photonics, and advanced multifunctional antennas.
EDA is leveraging its respective efforts to other European institutions to create synergies and avoid duplication. For next generation semiconductors based on gallium nitride, a completely European supply chain has been created in the EDA collaborative environment.
In the interest of defence and security, proposed actions for nano-technologies at European level should include:
•     providing for continuous and sustainable R&T investment through strategic planning and commitment
•     investment in supply chains and innovative production
•     developing business cases which combine highly specialised supply chains across EU institutions (defence, security, space, others)
•     activating synergies in a wider European approach to strengthen the industrial and academic base for future key enabling nano-technologies
•     identifying critical key enabling technologies for a European technology non-dependence (ETnD) strategy
•     setting up a coherent ETnD policy.

Richard Seeber is assistant director of research and technology at the European defence agency

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