How do European Policy Initiatives Impact Electronics Manufacturing Competitiveness?

An interview with Alison James, IPC Europe

Curious about what’s happening in IPC Europe? IPC blog staff took the opportunity to talk to Alison James, senior director, IPC Europe, Government Relations, about the European response to COVID-19, as well as other issues facing the European electronics manufacturing industry.

EB: How are you settling into your role as senior director of IPC Europe? We know that the pandemic is making all of us do our jobs differently, but what specific changes has IPC Europe experienced because of COVID-19?

AJ: I am settling in very well and delighted to be part of a versatile team. I joined IPC at the end of 2019 and was lucky enough to be able to attend IPC APEX EXPO before the pandemic with IPC’s government relations team led by Chris Mitchell. That was an important start to have time with IPC’s executives, to meet members and to see the evolving technologies. Government relations relies on understanding the business and its strategic direction and translating that into objectives regarding anticipated legislation. I was intending a few rounds of European EMS and PCB site visits this year, but all meetings have of course become virtual. However, it has been impressive that contact with European institutions has continued well under changing circumstances. On the policy side, we have seen a re-focusing of governments on managing the pandemic in the immediate term which has shifted policy priorities. Policy going forward will be viewed through the lens of recovery.

EB: Can you provide us with information on the top industry challenges facing IPC Europe? How does your background with the EU help you find solutions to those challenges?

AJ: Prior to joining IPC, I spent 20 years heading up the public affairs departments for a range of technology companies from Kodak to Microsoft to Hollywood studios. Before that I also worked for the European Commission. Europe has its own particular set of challenges and sensitivities.  When it comes to legislation, the EU is leading the way in quite a few areas. That has always been the case in the environmental field and even more so now with Europe’s Green Deal and move towards a circular economy.

All of this implies longer term change for the electronics industry in materials used and a significant increase in reporting requirements in the shorter term. We control the sails but not the wind, meaning that EU legislation will come, but our government relations function is here to speak for the industry, mitigate costs as much as possible and work with the legislators towards solutions that are workable and do not compromise on safety or reliability. There are a high number of policy initiatives underway here that directly or indirectly impact the competitiveness of our sector. We have a European industrial policy under development and an effort towards broad-scale digitalization of infrastructure and processes. Considering COVID-19, much is up for review and we certainly see a new spotlight on supply chains and an increased focus on re-shoring and regionalization.  In addition, there is a review of Europe’s trade policy which can have a substantial impact on businesses and their sourcing and manufacturing strategy. Consequently, it will impact their global supply chains. It’s important that electronics manufacturing can benefit from the push towards digitalization and automation and that future policy here provides a needed boost for our sector in this region. My background helps me to approach industry issues in a holistic way; to understand the different components of the ecosystem and integrate business demands into policy objectives together with the GR team and members’ expertise. To enable a cross-functional approach to deal with multilayered matters.

EB: How does the EU’s Climate-Focused Recovery Plan affect the European electronics manufacturing industry?

AJ: I’ll break this down into a few answers. Firstly, I would say that the EU’s climate focus was already there before the pandemic. Secondly, there are also opportunities in greater production of low carbon technologies from green mobility to energy and beyond. The details of the package still need to be agreed on by the EU Member States. Thirdly, the recovery plan is not all climate focused. Let’s not forget the shorter-term measures that have enabled flexibility for manufacturers in financing short time work schemes, the loans and grants that have been provided at Member State level. The Recovery Plan is also a stimulus for Member States to invest in digital infrastructure and technologies as the EU’s direction for the future is both green and digital. Hence there are opportunities as well as challenges for the European electronics manufacturing industry.

EB: What opportunities exist for manufacturers to align their factories with the European recovery plan?

AJ: The opportunity for manufacturers is to implement advanced manufacturing (AI, Data Spaces) and utilize low carbon technologies and initiatives that together potentially can create a global leading position in electronics manufacturing.

EB: The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) states that the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) directive to push companies to replace harmful chemicals with safer alternatives has had a notable impact on the industry. How does this directive affect the work you do with IPC to establish collaborative networks across the supply chains?

AJ: What we are seeing not only in REACH and the related SCIP database but also in other requirements pending, is a heightened move towards transparency throughout the supply chain and eventual substitution. Given this general direction, it is important for us in government relations to receive input from industry experts and stakeholders across the chain. There are challenges in reporting for the industry; there is interdependency, the chain is only as strong as the weakest link. Hence integral communication by IPC and collaboration with our standards committees is key.

EB: We understand that IPC provided EU leaders with input via the Roadmap for Economic Recovery. How has that input affected the manufacturing industry in Europe?

AJ: We seized upon the opportunity to provide input and the European Council were very appreciative of receiving it. However, the work is still on-going as recovery is still on-going and as in any process the devil is in the details. There were immediate-term objectives to keep manufacturing sites and supply chains up and running and we worked very closely with the European Commission, its Transport Directorate General and with the Heads of the EU Member States to have this understood and acted upon.

Now with the longer-term objective to re-build we would like to see a resilient, competitive electronics manufacturing sector in this region.

That means it is now critical to continue to work with our members and with the European institutions and Member States. To make sure that the future policy environment reflects the criticality of the electronics sector for Europe’s competitiveness. That together we can provide the right conditions to help it thrive and grow.

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