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How to deploy Smart Industry field labs effectively

Digitalisation in the Dutch manufacturing industry is essential for the country to remain a major player worldwide. For this reason, companies and knowledge institutions are working together on new digital technologies in what are called Smart Industry field labs. Our new research shows the usefulness and necessity of these test sites. However, there is room for improvement: a clear structure, a lower threshold, and additional funding will make the field labs even more effective.

What is Smart Industry?

Smart Industry is about leveraging IT and technology to help companies produce more efficiently and effectively. For example, companies can use smart IT in:

  • organisation (web shops, automated invoicing, logistics handling);
  • production technology (robots, 3D printing, digital work instructions);
  • or business models (such as product-as-a-service and manufacturing-as-a-service).

The benefits of Smart Industry:

Smart Industry uses less material and energy in net terms, produces less waste, has less absenteeism among staff, and higher productivity. In short: it creates other jobs and a better competitive position, for individual companies and the Dutch economy as a whole.

What is a fieldlab?

“The field labs are meant to fill the gap between research and application in the market,” explains TNO Vector researcher Mario Willems. “Entrepreneurs want to be sure of what they’re getting into before investing in new production technology. As one field lab coordinator said to us: "We want to be the neighbour who tests the innovation first. Then the entrepreneur will dare to get involved. And then the chances of success will also be many times higher.”

The field labs are part of the Smart Industry Programme. In this programme, TNO is working with the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy, industry associations FME and Metaalunie, and the Chamber of Commerce. This is very necessary, according to Tim van de Zandt of FME: “We’re facing a severe labour shortage and increasing competitive pressure in the coming years. Field labs are one of the ways to safeguard the digital transformation and smarter manufacturing in our companies, and maintain their strong competitive position in the world.”

Successes of field labs for the Dutch manufacturing industry

TNO Vector has conducted research on the history and future of the Smart Industry field labs. “With the data currently available, we cannot yet substantiate the extent to which the manufacturing industry has been further digitalised by the deployment of field labs. Let alone how labour productivity has increased. But there are many success stories,” says Willems.

1. Real innovation and awareness

For example, the Smart Connected Supply Network field lab developed a protocol to which companies can connect their various supply chain information systems. RAMLAB in the Port of Rotterdam even marketed their development: a system to 3D print metal objects with a robotic welding arm. “Development in field labs is just like real innovation: it doesn't always work, but when something comes through, it's great.”

Van de Zandt adds: “In any case, we see that the field labs make many companies aware of the need for digitalisation and smarter production. And it works well that field labs are organised bottom-up: companies among themselves, peer-to-peer, exposed to the knowledge of institutions such as TNO, and of universities.”

2. Bottom-up innovative ecosystem

Comparison with other countries shows that the strength of Dutch field labs lies mainly in their significance for small and medium-sized enterprises. Willems explains: “Field lab-like initiatives in Germany, England, and Belgium tend to be larger, with the participation of more large companies, better funded, and focused on special topics within digitalisation and production. They have a more top-down organisation. Big companies are great and certainly help to create roadmaps, for example, and make feasibility more accessible. So that’s also a consideration for us. However, other countries look with envy at our flexibility, open nature, and co-creation between companies and knowledge institutions. Partly by linking the Smart Industry programme and field labs to the Digital Innovation Hubs (EDIHs), a strong innovative ecosystem is being created from the bottom up.”

David Otto, co-author of the report, says: “The Smart Industry programme could perhaps be used more broadly. Foreign initiatives distinguish themselves, for example, through their comprehensive range of technologies and services. There too, there’s a role for field labs. This broad offer can be seen as a one-stop-shop approach, which results in a broad value proposition, giving them the ability to appeal to a wide range of businesses.

3. Positive energy and trust

For the time being, potential obstacles such as intellectual property (IP) are not a problem in Dutch field labs, precisely because of their open nature, says Van de Zandt: “Research is often still pre-competitive, so that IP is not yet an issue.” Willems adds: “In this kind of collaboration, there’s always a trade-off between mutual trust and tying everything down legally. A field lab such as Campione deliberately doesn’t do the latter, because they say: ‘We need that positive energy, which is only possible if parties trust each other.’ And finally, Dutch manufacturing companies do not compete with each other, but with global supply chains. So collaborating and innovating together are crucial to maintaining our competitive position.”

Lessons and future field labs

1. Call for companies to join

The main challenge for field labs in the future, according to Willems and Van de Zandt, is that more companies need to join the field labs. They conclude that a clear structure for the field labs would help in this regard. However, Van de Zandt adds: “Metaalunie and FME should work harder to refer companies to field labs and generate new agreements through the digitally somewhat more mature companies. To a certain extent the exchange of knowledge could also be improved.”

There are many reasons for companies to join field labs, Willems believes: “Networking is an important one. There are examples of companies meeting at a field lab and then winning contracts together. It also means having reasonably cheap and easy access to state-of-the-art R&D. And you showcase your company better, especially if you also include your clients in your activities with the field lab. Furthermore, you become more attractive in the hunt for new staff if you’re active in, for example, AI, 3D printing, or machine learning.”

2. Clear structure and more money needed

To increase the effectiveness of field labs, TNO Vector recommends a number of improvements. Van de Zandt embraces these: “Field labs are going to work better if they have a somewhat clearer structure for the companies. One lab may have a stronger focus on education, another on R&D, yet another on networking or specifically demonstration. Companies will then know better where to go. We also need to better monitor qualitative and quantitative spin-offs. And it’s also sometimes necessary to collaborate substantively with each other.”

3. Basic funding enhances effectiveness

Willems adds: “I prefer not to start asking for money right away, but it would help if field labs received basic funding for their facilities, organisation, location, and knowledge transfer. That isn’t currently available, and companies often don’t allocate money for field labs, as their contributions are usually in the form of employees' hours. Covering overheads, therefore – that’s a relatively limited investment that has a lot of impact.”

According to Van de Zandt, the funding body – that is to say the Dutch government – receives quite a lot in return: a strong manufacturing industry, including high productivity, employment, earning power, and a permanently strong export position. “We really don't need to move towards twice as many field labs; on the contrary, we’re rather cautious. But we do want their reach to double within five years. We need the field labs to be more effective for the sake of our economy.”

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