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The EU is shaping the framework for digitalization and Industrie 4.0 in Europe with a wealth of initiatives. An overview of the most important projects from Brussels.

By Kai Peters

The aim is clear. As Günther Oettinger said back when he was EU Commissioner for the Digital Economy, "Europe will only be able to establish its leading position in the world if it succeeds in digitalizing its industry quickly." But it is not quite as clear how the European Unit will make its way into the digital age. Brussels has come up with a whole bouquet of initiatives in the hope of leading Europe to a digital future and Industrie 4.0.

The major key word for the EU’s digital strategy is the digital common market. In 2015, the Commission presented a strategy of the same name as a continuation of its 2010 "Digital Agenda for Europe." In order to adapt the European market to the digital age, Brussels saw particular need for action in data traffic, IT security and the regulation of online platforms.

However, the digital common market can actually be divided up much further, namely into 16 separate EU initiatives. These range from legislation to data protection, a European cloud, online retail and copyright on the internet. Looking to fill these topics with content, the Commission has developed no fewer than 35 concrete proposals for legislation.

Artificial intelligence, data and IT security

One topic of particular interest to mechanical engineering is communication with artificial intelligence (AI). The idea here is to promote AI through research and investment assistance, although the issues addressed also include social effects, liability and an ethical framework for the use of artificial intelligence. So far, the latter has been limited to encouraging dialog, but the processes could ultimately lead to concrete legislation.

The initiative on exchanging non-personal data is also extremely relevant. It aims to improve access to public sector data, as well as promoting the exchange of data between companies. The measures included in the package include guidelines for companies active in the EU on the legal and technical principles of shared data use. The fact that the Commission differentiates and recognizes the sensitivity of machine and production data is a positive step.

Thirdly, the Cybersecurity Act of September 2017 has very specific consequences for industry. The aim of this proposal is to achieve a comparable level of protection for IT products across the EU, preventing member states from acting unilaterally. However, there is still considerable disagreement about how to implement this, with options ranging from self-declaration by manufacturers to mandatory third-party certification. These questions are currently being debated in the European Parliament, which expects to pass concrete legislation in this legislative period (by Spring 2019).

Geoblocking and personal data

There is also a host of proposals that are not directed at industry specifically, but could have an impact on future business models in Industrie 4.0. Regulation of geoblocking has already been in place since the start of 2018. It aims to eliminate discrimination of online customers based on their citizenship or place of residence - which can have an impact on the sale of products or provision of services via the internet.

The E-Privacy Directive is currently in final negotiations between the European Parliament and the member states. Intended to ensure the confidentiality of online communication, for example on services like WhatsApp, its impact on the industry remains unclear. One key question is regarding the explicit consent to the use of cookies. However, the scope also includes the exchange of data between machines, albeit in very vague and inconsistent form.

Research and coordination

Research policy will play no small part in the success of Industrie 4.0. The EU has set up myriad initiatives over the last few years, including on high-performance computing, big data and cybersecurity, to name but a few. However, it is not clear whether this will remain the case. Digitalization is to be given another big push in the new Framework Programme for 2020 to 2027, but the Commission’s proposal no longer prioritizes the concerns of the industry.

Finally, the EU is also driving forward its "Digitising Industry" agenda, one of the main achievements of former Digital Commissioner Oettinger. The strategy refers to the aforementioned initiatives and demands that the concerns of industry are taken into account. However, its main aim is to coordinate national initiatives like Germany's Plattform Industrie 4.0, as well as promoting European partnerships and supporting centers of excellence.

Further Information

VDMA European Office   |   VDMAimpulse 03-2018: "The EU's quest for an intelligent approach to AI"   |   VDMAimpulse 02-2018: "Regulating the future"

Kai Peters, VDMA European Office.