"Industrial automation is a fundamental prerequisite for competitiveness and sustainability"

Article · 2021-08-31

Darja Isaksson is Director General of Vinnova, Sweden’s innovation agency, and since 2019 has been a member of the Swedish National Digitalisation Council, set up by the Swedish Government. Vinnova is involved in the Industry Day on 7 September and we have spoken with Darja Isaksson about the role of the government in the continued development of the industry in Sweden.

Why is Swedish IndTech so successful?

Darja Isaksson

Swedish industry has for a long time worked on the understanding that innovation is critical to competitiveness, and it presupposes that innovation work is systematically prioritised. In Sweden, industry has also taken the bold step of working in new ways and with new cutting-edge companies to jointly develop ecosystems. The rest is about the ability to lead from the future and work hard to make it happen. Using today’s new technologies, IndTech is realising the potential of optimising automation that we could only have dreamed of. We need to use digitalisation to enable the circular flows of finite materials and develop new business models that drive the transition.

Vinnova helps and supports IndTech through, for example, its strategic innovation programme, PiiA (Process Industrial IT and Automation), which finances research, innovation and development. Its aim is for industry and its suppliers to jointly adapt and learn more so new technology will be able to strengthen Swedish industry. Automation Region, another Vinnova-financed innovation environment, has, together with PiiA, taken the initiative to launch Swedish IndTech.

How do you view the development of automation and innovation and why is it important?

Industrial automation is a fundamental prerequisite for competitiveness and sustainability. Previously we used the opportunities afforded by automation to increase consumption; however, now that we have a more circular mindset and paradigm, the focus has changed. Swedish companies have an unbelievable drive, and in international terms, they demonstrate strong leadership in innovation and automation issues.

How is Vinnova promoting the automation field?

One good thing about the new research bill is that it boosts investment in socially important areas and strengthens Sweden quite substantially. The strategic innovation programmes are larger and fewer in number, which means we are mobilising smarter. It is important to note that in the wake of the pandemic, many other countries are also making huge investments, which is altering the playing field, especially as we have a uniquely diverse economy, which is a strength.

The question is how do we ensure that specifically industrial automation is being developed, since this is where we need to be at the forefront. At Vinnova, we support innovation through, for example, our Vinnväxt initiative [a competition designed to promote sustainable regional growth] and other upskilling efforts.

Sweden is leading the way in many areas, yet sometimes regarded as lagging behind in the very field of production automation. This is where small companies can often play an innovative role. What can Vinnova do for these companies?

Many large companies have changed how they view working with small companies. It is about openness, quickness and not least the importance of being a good first customer for them. Someone told me that before entering into a collaboration, many start-ups do not even have the money to pay lawyers to read legal documents. That is why it is positive to see that many large companies are now adopting a much clearer approach.

At Vinnova, we encourage and support small companies by providing, for example, verification resources, incubation offices and test centres so as to bring about the infrastructure where companies are in the right environment. In short, Vinnova finances the structures that make it easier for start-ups to execute their ideas, test their products and find and reach out to potential customers. We are aware of the importance of having access to infrastructure and skills as well as networks and relationships. Ecosystems for agile, leading-edge companies are one of our priority areas.

Access to open test and demo environments is crucial to being able to quickly develop ideas. One task is to jointly ensure that we can use funding streams effectively. When executing this, we have to be open and accessible to the whole country so as to avoid regional stagnation.

How do you view skills development and provision within automation and innovation?

These areas are developing fast, and our labour market is more mixed-age than ever. Swedish industry’s advances are contributing to increasing skills requirements, and engineering graduates need, more than ever, to acquire broader skills. Upskilling education initiatives such as Civilingenjör 4.0 (Graduate Engineer 4.0) are extremely important for meeting the knowledge requirements that arise as the manufacturing industry develops. A national range of advanced courses with applications in digitalisation and automation, which universities and university colleges can learn from and be inspired by, contributes greatly to boosting Swedish industry’s competitiveness.

What is required for innovation to help bring about a transformative change?

To continue to further develop, Sweden needs more common goals that mobilise even broader collaboration between actors and industries. In future, collaboration between various environments and actors such as academia and industry will be extremely important to ensure we have the skills and the innovation.