Innovation clusters 'instrumental' in meeting global competition

Aerospace clusters can drive Europe's innovation, eco-efficiency and competitiveness, writes Charles Champion.

By Charles Champion

08 Jan 2014

As 2013 draws to a close, the European aerospace industry looks back at an exciting year. The most memorable moment for me personally was the first flight of Airbus's new long-range aircraft, the A350XWB. Its lightweight design, better aerodynamics and more efficient engines make it the cleanest aircraft of its size, with a 25 per cent reduction in fuel consumption. Even before its first delivery, Europe's most modern aircraft has been outselling the competition for years, securing thousands of highly-skilled engineering and manufacturing jobs across Europe.

Over the past 40 years, Airbus has become the world market leader in one of the most competitive and high-profile industries. Similarly aerospace has developed into a sector that is of great importance for the European economy. It creates high-value exports, value-adding innovation and highly-skilled jobs across the European Union, which means it is exactly the kind of industry that can help ensure Europe's competitiveness and industrial future for many years to come.

These developments would be unthinkable without Europe's world-class aerospace clusters. The biggest and most innovative ones have set up the European aerospace cluster partnership (EACP), which currently has 41 members from 14 European countries. This network was established thanks to the European commission's Pro inno Europe initiative, with the common objective of making Europe's aerospace industry even more competitive.

Today, two of these clusters are among the three largest civil aviation locations in the world: Toulouse and Hamburg. These clusters aren't the inevitable outcome of our industrial heritage. Rather they are the result of decades of conscious investment decisions, good policymaking, and close cooperation between the private and the public sector in research and technology.

The Aerospace valley cluster, centred around Toulouse in southwest France, represents one third of the French aerospace workforce totalling around 115,000 industrial employees in around 1200 organisations. In addition, 8500 researchers and scientists are active here, making it a huge innovation and research hub. The results of this public-private partnership are impressive: In total, Aerospace valley members have initiated some 480 R&D projects. Training and education are equally important, with 45 organisations dedicated to providing the necessary skills to the next generation of employees.

The aviation cluster of the Hamburg metropolitan area is home to 40,000 specialised employees, working for around 300 aerospace companies and suppliers, in addition to five universities and three research centres focused on aviation. This year, Hamburg witnessed the ground breaking of the centre of applied aeronautical research's TechCenter, which brings together the city of Hamburg, Airbus, Lufthansa, various universities and other public and private stakeholders. With its opening in 2015, the TechCenter will become home to 600 researchers and staff, an aviation think tank that combines research and development under a single roof.

In the UK, the west of England aerospace forum stands out. It consists of 210 members with 59,000 employees, including four dedicated research institutes. In Italy, Aerospace Lombardia brings together 25 large companies, 160 SMEs and 40 public research institutes, which together employ 15,000 people. The Madrid cluster Aerospacial accounts for 20,000 jobs and more than 48 research groups devoted to aerospace related R&D activities. Flag and Skywin in Belgium include not just world class aerospace suppliers with 20,000 jobs but also research institutes, universities and incubators. The list goes on, encompassing clusters from Barcelona to Bavaria, from Ireland to Hungary, and from Lithuania to Portugal.

The cutting-edge research conducted by Europe's aviation innovation clusters creates not only highly-skilled jobs, but is also instrumental in the development of ever cleaner, quieter and more comfortable aircraft. In addition, the clusters are integral in optimising the European aviation system, as many of the organisations located in these clusters are involved in, among others, the SESAR and Clean sky 2 programmes which aim to reduce emissions and noise and to tackle congestion at Europe's airports.

Looking ahead, the next generation of our short and mid-range aircraft, the A320NEO, will take to the skies for the first time next year. It is the fastest-selling aircraft in history. As for the A350XWB and all our other models, the key driver and selling point is innovation, and in particular eco-efficiency, as the new model markedly reduces fuel consumption.

Despite these success stories, there is no reason to be complacent. Europe's aerospace industry faces tough competition from the US as well as from new competitors from China, Brazil, Russia and Canada which often have the full backing of their national governments. Our European innovation clusters - supported by all stakeholders - will be instrumental in meeting this challenge.

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