« The reaction capability of the aerospace sector in periods of crisis is a positive signal regarding the health of the sector. »
Anna Maaßen, International Affairs manager, EACP (European Aerospace Cluster Partnership).
The Covid-19 outbreak is seriously affecting the aerospace sector. What is the current situation of the EACP’s partners and how are the European clusters facing this pandemic?
The aerospace sector is heavily affected by the outbreak so that we can definitely speak about a situation of crisis. All EACP members are concentrated on the manufacturing part of the sector, which is less visible then air-traffic and tourism, but at the same time one of Europe’s strongest sectors. Not only in relation to its economic output and workforce, but also in terms of cross-sectoral innovation potential.
At the beginning of the crisis, the sector mainly suffered from the direct effects of the outbreak, like the shutdowns, which have been applied in different European countries. This had an immediate impact on everybody. As the aerospace sector supply chain is international and interdependent, companies were hit depending on their location within the supply chain, dependency on other suppliers and raw material, and safety regulations. In the meantime, the recession and the ongoing collapse of the demand for new aircraft have much stronger consequences for our members. Unfortunately, the drop of demand together with the large investments many supplier had been asked to do, to keep up with the growing pre-crises production rates, are a worst-case combination for many aerospace suppliers.
The reaction capability of the aerospace sector in periods of crisis is a positive signal regarding the health of the sector.
Within the last weeks, all clusters felt the growing demand for support, exchange and longing for information for new topics from their members, although the sector has been slowing down immensely. As a network for the European aerospace clusters, we tried to answer this request by providing a strong and continuous platform, in order to foster the support and exchange between public authorities and industry. Of course, it is always the main purpose of cluster offices to moderate this exchange between the different players in the sector, in order to make the regional activities as smooth as possible. Therefore, it is even more important to provide a strong, quick reacting platform in times of crises. I guess I can speak for all regions involved, that the feedback regarding our efforts was very positive, although it is quite challenging to keep up with the flood of demands from all sides towards the cluster managers. We try to answer this demand offering our members new formats. By doing so, we show them our continuous support and we motivate them to see new perspectives. This also results in a higher virtual exchange on EACP level, as the cluster managers now use the network stronger as ever before. The information and best practices exchange, as well as sharing support in these challenging times, has never been as important as today. On the one hand, we exchange to receive a direct update about respective regional situations, which was requested by our members, on the other hand we share new type of formats to stay connected to the member companies.
Another point is, of course, the direct exchange with public authorities. For EACP it is foremost the direct channel to the European institutions. We try to explain the current situation of the sector and come up with ideas for support mechanisms that might be helpful within this crisis. Of course, we are also supporting similar approaches on a national and regional level.
What are the measures launched by EACP in order to stay in touch with its partners and exchange updated information? Is in these times of crisis more necessary than ever to develop a ‘cluster policy’?
EACP has a tight network between its 45 members, which has developed well-established roots within the last 11 years. The network is especially strong via the networking hub, which coordinates most activities, but also to its partners outside of the network. It is however true that within the last weeks the established links underwent much higher traffic. With the beginning of Covid-19 crisis, we made use of an online platform in which many clusters shared their respective regional situation. A weekly-based conference call helps us to discuss specific challenges (as well for our member companies as for us as clusters) as the cancellation of the Farnborough International Air Show, which causes a massive impact to several clusters. Additionally, clusters share their individual webinars with all other EACP member companies. I guess those examples were only possible due to the knowledge about the EACP and its well-established trust.
The cluster world is questioning its policy regarding theoretical background, motivation and output ever since. Throughout all sectors, cluster experts always try to reach the next level of support mechanism of economic development; from a more cross-sectoral working over more international cooperation to a stronger integration of the public into the sector. Today, this crisis is challenging cluster policy into a total new dimension. In many areas, the situation has put pressure on relevant topics and speeds up their development in an impressive way. Since years, we are trying to find ways to establish more cross-sectoral approaches. Suddenly, with the impact of Covid-19 and within shortest time, aerospace companies respond to the strong needs of the market, and especially civil society, and start producing health materials like face shields, masks and ventilators. This is most probably not a new business model for them as this is only a temporarily task, but it is a great example for flexibility and adaptation to the market demand. The reaction capability of the aerospace sector in periods of crisis is a positive signal regarding the health of the sector. It is now our task to learn from these new processes and implement them in the future.
Are the European aerospace SMEs companies ready to overcome this global crisis?
Surely, this question cannot be answered generally for all SMEs. What can be stated is that the aerospace sector was in a pretty good shape before the global crisis. The effects of the global crisis will also depend on the length of the dip. There are also differences whether companies are exclusively active in civil aviation or also produce for defence or space, as these fields are less depending on the market demand. Many companies are also active in other sectors like automotive, energy or else. These sectors might overcome the crisis faster than aerospace. Furthermore, the pandemic will also have a strong effect on the demand for new aircraft. Currently, we can also only guess which type of aircraft will come back strongest.
A further EACP focus for companies to overcome this crisis is the support in requests about human resources. As we are well aware that we are facing a major need of talents, keeping them inside the network should not get out of sight through this situation, as it might be the Achilles’ heel of the sector once the demand returns.
The EACP has recently celebrated its 11th anniversary. How has evolved this alliance during these years and what are its coming challenges?
The network has grown not only in the number of members, but especially in the number of committed actors, which is very important as the network lives from the input given by its members. The EACP is not a service agency, but it is an active network that lives from the contribution everyone provides. You can imagine if 45 clusters just share a little of expertise, working time and contacts, how much benefit everyone can take out of this network. There is enough surplus value for all partners to take out whatever is relevant for his or her cluster.
While the constant growth in numbers represents one of the strongest points of the EACP, it also represents one of its greatest challenges. More members mean higher inputs and requests. Therefore, we always need more and more people to take responsibility. Until now, this concept has worked quite well. However, a discussion about the necessity to create a legal entity for the EACP is underway, as the network shows an incredible potential, as demonstrated during the current crisis. Nevertheless, I am personally convinced that we can play out the potential best by not founding a legal organisation with fully paid consultants located in Brussels doing our job. That would totally loose the founding spirit. The spirit of sharing valuable information into the network, because one feels committed, recognized, and knowing that this sharing will come in handy.
The number of topics has increased with the growth of the network, but also communication got easier thanks to many tools that facilitate virtual cooperation. Such a cooperation increases the sense of community for EACP, as it often feels like we are a team, just located in different places across Europe. Apparently, the current time has not affected us heavily as, within EACP, we are used to work in virtual teams. It got even better within the last weeks as virtual meetings got more and more accepted.
As network, we have learned a lot out of the last 11 years, becoming more effective regarding decision-making processes, share of information, push innovation and strengthening our EU-position. Already in 2012, the EACP was well appreciated from the EC for its model of cross-cluster working. This acknowledgement targeted mainly the cluster theoretical idea of our network. Nowadays, EACP is respected as a serious partner in the aerospace sector itself, which is great, but also necessary. Being the major stakeholder of SMEs within the European aerospace sector, we feel ourselves (and through this the needs of the SMEs) more heard on a European level. This is a great chance for SMEs, as they usually lack platforms where they can express their needs, concerns and ideas.
There are different working groups within EACP specialized in topics such as Strategy, Internationalisation, Skills, Supply Chain and Technology. What are the roles of these groups and how do they work?
EACP has many ideas on how to improve the work of cluster managers or to support our members. Of course, not all clusters are facing the same challenges or have similar resources. Moreover, not everyone can be involved in all topics. That was the reason for the establishment of different working groups (WG), in between distribution of tasks and interest/expertise. The most important aspect of the division into working groups is that, at the end, all information and results are accessible for all clusters. All WG have their own objectives and once a year they are reporting their working results and status to all members at the General Assembly. EACP members are invited to join these WG, depending on their possibilities and interests, of course.
The WGs are led by volunteering cluster managers and regularly exchange, mostly on a monthly base. They act independently but follow the same principles of openness and transparency to all EACP members. From time to time, some topics get speed up, if we find a suitable European call that provides us with some capacity to invest some more time and resources on specific issues. When project ends the results always flow back into the WG, which guarantees a perfect sustainability of project results and findings.
On the one hand the WGs concentrate on areas, which are in the main interests of aviation clusters, like technological topics, supply chain challenges and human resources skills/qualification. On the other hand, they cover our daily work as cluster managers, including strategical decisions for clusters and the network itself, or the international – i.e. outside of Europe – orientation of the EACP. Talking about strategical directions of the aviation clusters: The WGs currently formulate position papers on “green aviation” and “consequences of the Covid19-crisis » that show the future way to go for the aerospace industry.
What are the big challenges and trends that are going to mark the future of the aerospace sector after this crisis? How do you think clusters must adapt to these challenges?
Well, I guess that the main challenges and trends will remain the same as before the crisis. If I had to pick out some topics, they would probably be digitalisation, UAV and green technologies. However, the momentum and circumstances have changed due to the current situation. The need to follow the innovative trends has become even more important, in the light of the most recent developments
Furthermore, the current situation has underlined the importance of social challenges and needs. Politics and economy had to rethink most of their schemes of action, increasing in solidarity and sensibility. These newly acquired tools could be the base for a future, greater acceptance towards social innovation. That can result in more impact driven business models, which might have positive effects on social relevant topics that are gaining importance also in the aviation sector, like alternative city mobility and ecological sustainable aviation.