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Graphic element Research > Growth > Research projects > Aeronautics projects > Encouraging SMEs in the aerospace industry
Graphic element Encouraging SMEs in the aerospace industry

Big players such as Aerospatiale, Airbus Industrie, Alenia, British Aerospace, CASA, and DASA dominate Europe's aeronautics industry. Below the big names, however, are hundreds of smaller companies that are often at the cutting edge of innovation but face serious problems plugging in and profiting from pan-European research programmes. The AeroSME project set out to meet the specific needs of SMEs, which account for around 2.4% of the sector's total turnover.

Aerospace research is recognised as a high risk and difficult environment for the sector's biggest players and is even more of a problem for small companies with only a fraction of the financial resources of the big spenders. The pay-day for research carried out now could be several years down the line, if at all. Around 13% of the aerospace sector's turnover is spent annually on research and development. Long lead times for research, high costs and the preference of big companies to deal with tried and tested suppliers, all tend to work against small companies. The marked consolidation within the sector is another factor that can freeze out small firms.

  Poor take up by SMEs

These special characteristics of the aerospace sector resulted in a poor take-up by small and medium sized aerospace companies of the opportunities offered under the EU's Fourth Framework Programme of research. To address this problem, the European Commission and Europe's aerospace industry have combined to create AeroSME.

This project is aimed at making aerospace SMEs aware of opportunities to participate in research within the Fifth Framework Research Programme and the CRAFT programme. It also aims to make SMEs aware of partnership possibilities with each other and advise them on how best to qualify for EU funding. Individual companies and national aerospace associations from the 15 EU countries, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Israel are taking part.


  Three-step programme to boost research

AeroSME is the direct result of discussions between the European Association of Aerospace Industries (AECMA) and the Commission's Research Directorate. The programme has three main goals:

  1. to find out the research needs of small and medium sized aerospace companies and where the gaps in existing aid are;
  2. to design measures which can boost their participation in European projects; and
  3. to put these measures into effect.

The first two phases have been completed. Complaints by small companies that they do not know who potential partners are and what funding opportunities to target have resulted in the creation of a AeroSME database and the AeroSME website. These provide information on around 300 small aerospace companies and simple information packs on how to get through the maze of successfully taking part in EU programmes. The database helps small companies contact each other and allows the sector's biggest players to target small partners in niche markets who might be interested in joint research or sub-contracts.

"Our real aim is to make SME's work together. In the past, distance between companies, language problems, and a basic lack of awareness of possible partners made this difficult," says Brian Morris, the equipment attaché at AECMA and one of the main creators of AeroSME. "Partnerships have already been created that would not have existed otherwise."


  Thriving on co-operation

AeroSME is in many ways a direct result of the lessons learnt by national associations of aerospace businesses. These have in some cases developed sophisticated means of communication and co-operation. Companies appear to thrive when clustered together.

The third and final phase is began officially in May 2000, but had already been partially pre-empted. This included the creation of a help desk to field questions from companies and to give advice, especially on the third call for FP5 research projects which is launched in March 2001.

"SMEs do need to be more proactive and help themselves but it is essential that they have access to a focal point which is dedicated to them specifically to address dealing with the complexity of EU research and technical development activities," says Morris.


  • The EU has also provided funding through accompanying measures to establish a project called Support for Collaborative Aeronautical Research (SCRATCH) which is intended to complement the work of AeroSME. The SCRATCH project, which is due to end next April, aims to encourage SMEs that are active in the aerospace industry to participate in EU research projects. Working through a consortium of five aerospace organisations in France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and the UK. SCRATCH publicises information about research projects to raise awareness among SMEs and promotes contacts between interested parties in the different countries. It also offers services to help SMEs prepare and write project proposals, find partners and set up partnerships.

Major exporter and employer

Aerospace is one of the EU's biggest export earners, and employs around 32,000 people. AECMA estimates the sector will enjoy annual growth of between 2% and 3% a year for the next 15 to 20 years. European companies are in many cases vying for business internationally, mostly against US rivals, in what is a highly competitive business.

According to AECMA, there are signs that the number of start ups in the sector is increasing as work traditionally carried out by big companies is spun off and sub-contracted. In addition, the development of new technologies, such as the use of specialised ceramics and micro-technology in aircraft, lends itself to fleet-of-foot small companies that can quickly adapt to new circumstances.

Clustering for success

At a national and regional level, the aerospace sector is a prime example where clusters of companies can breed success by stimulating co-operation, sharing know-how, and directing orders to each other. Historically, many of these clusters have developed at sites where Europe's aerospace industry was born over 100 years ago.

More recently, an important cluster of companies has sprung up around the main Airbus production site in Toulouse, Southern France. Other clusters exist around British Aerospace production plants in North-West England; in Bavaria and around Hamburg/Bremen in German; around Turin, Naples and Milan in Italy; and around Madrid and Bilbao in Spain.

AeroSME will help these regional clusters and national associations overcome local and domestic horizons to co-operate at a wider level. "The basis of our work is encouraging communication and the flow of information," says AECMA's Brian Morris.

Other useful links

Aerospatiale, Airbus Industrie, Alenia, British Aerospace, CASA, and DASA

Poor take up by SMEs
Three-step programme to boost research
Thriving on co-operation
Major exporter and employer
Clustering for success

Key data

As part of the New perspectives in aeronautics key action, Europe's aerospace industry and the European Commission have created a programme aimed at encouraging SMEs to participate in research. The AeroSME project has two main aims:
find out the research needs of SME companies; and
design measures to boost participation in European projects.

A database has been created to help SMEs find potential partners for research and a help desk has been set up to field inquiries from companies.
Project: AeroSME is a joint activity with the European Association of Aerospace Industries (AECMA)

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