“Efficiency in the use of resources and the circular economy are on the rise, driven by digital technologies”
We interview Begoña Gil, leader of Zabala Innovation's Industry and Digital Area
These are two essential topics that are the focus of one of Zabala Innovation’s knowledge areas, in this case Industry and Digital. Begoña Gil leads an area that is undergoing change at breakneck speed, but which is also meeting reticence from more traditional sectors. In this interview, she delves into the challenges and opportunities facing industry and digital technologies in Europe.
Your area covers two quite different topics, is there a symbiosis between them?
Absolutely. In fact, it is difficult to draw a line where one ends and the other ends. In the industrial area we work on all kinds of production technologies, advanced manufacturing, construction issues and new materials, among others. And in the other area we find digital technologies such as the internet of things, robotics, artificial intelligence, laser technologies, data technologies, cloud technologies, Blockchain or 6G, among others.
All these technologies coexist and benefit from each other and it is precisely in this union where the real potential to produce a real technological change in Europe arises.
Europe is currently facing the need to increase its competitiveness, its ability to generate employment and therefore produce economic growth. At the same time, it faces the challenge of achieving the goals set out in the European Green Deal to evolve towards a greener, digital and inclusive Europe.
Digital technologies can drive competitiveness and economic growth, but until they are effectively deployed in Europe’s main economic sectors, they will not reach their full potential. And it is the industrial sector that, because of its sheer size, has the potential and ability to bring about real change in Europe.
Has industry adapted to digital technologies development?
In industry, change is generally not as rapid as it is in the development of digital technologies. Because the transition to significant levels of digitisation requires investment: financial investment, of course, but also time and a significant investment in staff training.
There are sectors that have been able to adapt to this change more quickly, such as the automotive or aeronautics industries, but other key sectors such as the iron and steel, capital goods or construction industries are still very traditional in their operation and the entry of digital technologies is not being as rapid.
Therefore, there is a long way to go, a wide range of room for improvement and this transformation for industry will therefore be both a challenge and an opportunity. An opportunity for European companies to position themselves as international benchmarks and an opportunity for Europe to move towards a greener and more resilient Europe.
Are new materials appearing on this road ahead?
Yes, of course. The coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine have put all industrial sectors on alert and they are now facing a major need to improve their resource efficiency, mainly in terms of energy and materials.
In terms of materials, industry is faced with the need to review and rethink its supply chains.
The scarcity of resources has led companies to explore on the one hand the possibilities within concepts such as recycling, reuse or the use of secondary materials, and on the other hand to consider innovations for the development and use of new advanced materials. Advanced materials capable of replacing traditional materials more efficiently and more easily sourced.
Is there real training of workers for this new scenario or is there a lot of work to be done?
Secondly, there is a lot of work to be done. The rapid transition to a climate-neutral Europe and the digital transformation are changing the way we work. And companies will have to train their employees to cope with this transformation. Technologies are evolving much faster than people are being trained to use them, so training is going to be the challenge in the coming years.
It is in this spirit that Europe published the ‘European Skills Agenda’, a plan to help people and companies develop more and better skills and put them into practice. To this end, it proposes to strengthen sustainable competitiveness, as outlined in the European Green Deal; to ensure social equity by implementing the first principle of the European Pillar of Social Rights; and finally, to increase resilience to react to crises by building on the lessons learned during the pandemic.
What role does collaboration play in this scenario?
Collaboration is key: universities, technology centres, industrial companies and government entities need to work together so that there is a real transfer of knowledge between research actors and companies. They are the ones who have the need to improve internally, as well as the ability to bring about real change in Europe using this knowledge and technological development. A change from which present and future generations will benefit.
You have mentioned the European Green Deal on a couple of occasions, is it already the big benchmark for all sectors?
Yes, it clearly is. The European Green Deal is a set of proposals to adapt EU climate, energy, transport and taxation policies to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. Aiming for a greener, more digital and inclusive Europe.
Technological innovation will play a key role in meeting this major challenge. And European industry will have to align its strategic plans with these aims to become greener, more digital and inclusive.
Which funding programmes are most attractive to innovate and achieve this transition?
Within the European framework, the funding programme par excellence for the industrial sector is Horizon Europe, which specifically within its pillar 2 of “global challenges and European industrial competitiveness” hosts specific thematic areas to fund research, development and innovation projects around the “digital world and industry”.
Another programme of interest to European industry is LIFE, the European Union’s financial instrument dedicated exclusively to the environment and climate action. And finally, the Digital Europe programme is the instrument for responding to the process of digital transformation of the economy and society.
How does Zabala Innovation help clients to obtain this funding?
From the Industry and Digital Knowledge Area of Zabala Innovation we support our clients, whether they are companies, universities, technology centres or other types of entities, to focus their strategic projects towards this green and digital transition that we have just mentioned.
Our knowledge and experience in funding programmes allows us to accompany our clients from the planning of their strategic projects and identification of funding opportunities, to the preparation, application and subsequent management of successful funding proposals.
What are the main changes you have perceived in the area and in your clients in recent years?
In this time, we have seen how industrial companies have focused their strategic projects towards improvements in terms of efficiency, but nowadays efficiency is not only based on the efficiency of production processes and the reduction of waste to improve economic ratios. Efficiency encompasses much more, it seeks an integral vision of the entire value chain and the environment in which the company works, from customers or users of its products to the last supplier of the material necessary to produce any element. Industrial companies are no longer islands operating independently but are part of a connected world in which collaboration is absolutely necessary.
That is why the industrial research and development projects we see today consider all the processes that take place in an industry. Not only those related to production, but also those focused on cross-cutting issues such as design, procurement, energy, logistics, customer, and employee involvement, among others.
What are the current trends in your area and how does Zabala Innovation deal with them?
The current trends are in the connection of production value chains and the exchange of information between them. Within this framework, issues such as resource efficiency and the circular economy are on the rise, and digital technologies will be the main tools to drive them forward. Finally, research into alternative energy sources and advanced materials is currently of relevance and will be an important topic in the coming years.
In this video you can learn more about the work of the Industry and Digital Area of Zabala Innovation.