Right now, Nordic countries are at the forefront of the printed electronics industry, pioneering new technologies and developing new electronic capabilities. But what is it that makes the Nordics shine in the printed electronics sphere? Why has the Nordic region become a hub for printed electronics innovation? And what could other countries learn from the Nordics? We take a deep dive into the reasons why this region of Northern Europe is paving the way in printed electronics worldwide.
With rapid industrialization in East, South, and Southeast Asia over the last five decades, particularly in China, many companies chose to move their electronics manufacturing arm to Asia - with a big proportion doing so during the 1990s. Taking advantage of the low cost of labor in the region, many conventional electronics design and manufacturing jobs transitioned to Asia. Leaving an electronics industry vacuum in the West.
Rather than shifting all electronic development to Asia, Nordic countries continued to invest in research and development in new electronics capabilities. For example, in Sweden, it was argued as far back as 1996 that “Sweden's research-intensive electronics industries have thrived by developing export-market niches that rely greatly on continuous innovation and substantial expenditures in R&D.”
As this graph shows, Nordic countries are consistently well above the EU average when it comes to expenditure on R&D.
The same can be said for the percentage of employees in the Nordic region working specifically in R&D.
And this trend has continued across the region, resulting in the creation of pioneering electronics and multidisciplinary research centers, for e.g. Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland in collaboration with universities, and businesses in the region. Examples include the Printed Electronics Arena in Sweden and PrintoCent in Finland, the first pilot factory for printed intelligence and electronics industrialization in the world. EU, governmental and regional level public funding have continued to support these bold collaborative initiatives.
Sweden and Finland are particularly renowned for their innovation and industrialization of paper manufacturing and paper converting processes and related quality control systems. Sweden and Finland are also both among the top five exporters of paper products. This strong focus on paper manufacturing has helped the Nordics gain incomparable know-how in roll-to-roll production. Combine this expertise with the ability to handle chemistries in web format and you can see why the Nordics are excellently placed for printed electronics manufacturing.
Nordic countries are ahead of the game when it comes to innovation. According to the Global Innovation Index 2021, Nordic countries were all in the top 20 innovative countries worldwide. Sweden in particular is an innovation leader having been in the top five innovative countries in the world for three consecutive years.
But where does this innovation-centricity come from? Multidisciplinary collaboration is likely to be a big contributor, as well as the Nordic education approach which favors independent thought over learning by rote.
Printed electronics requires multidisciplinary skills - chemists, industrial designers, electronics engineers, printing experts, physicists, mechanical engineers, business leaders must all come together to develop a new product and successfully take it to market.
Nordic companies tend to have less siloed, less hierarchical organizational structures that encourage multidisciplinary collaborations within companies, but also with external experts and academic researchers. This tendency towards collaboration has been termed “intrapreneurship,” referring to industry colleagues collaborating on projects outside of their usual assignments. It is this collaborative mindset and truly integrative style of working that places Nordic companies at the forefront of the printed electronics industry.
This cooperation extends across the Nordic region with Prime Ministers from Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway agreeing on a vision to make the Nordic region the most sustainable and integrated region in the world by 2030.
Being frontrunners when it comes to innovation, Nordic governments have supported the electronics industry’s transition from conventional electronics, dominated by countries like China, to emerging electronics technologies, such as printed electronics and the Internet of Things.
By funding research, education in the space, and shared labs and facilities, the government has allowed Nordic companies the opportunity to thrive and lead in emerging electronics markets. This willingness to focus on and nurture the birth of new ecosystems that from day one extend beyond regional and national boundaries is what sets the Nordics apart.
The Nordic countries are small and their economies have to be constantly renewed and adapted to be on the leading edge and to stay competitive. Evidence of the region’s entrepreneurial spirit can be seen in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report that 10% of 18 to 24 years olds in the Nordics are involved in early-stage entrepreneurial activity.
This entrepreneurial spirit is fostered by governments’ focus on dismantling a monopoly-dominant market, making it easier for smaller players to enter and shape the market. There is now a constantly increasing level of entrepreneurship and early-stage investments, plus foreign direct investments into early-stage ventures. These early-stage investments bring speed to developments that established risk-averse companies might hesitate to take.
The printed electronics start-up and SME eco-systems in the Nordics are particularly active, with many investors worldwide keeping a close eye on developments in the region.
A region known for its collective commitment to environmentalism and sustainability, it’s only natural that many Nordic companies want to genuinely address global challenges and create a positive global impact. It’s no surprise then that Nordic companies come out top when it comes to TSI (Total Societal Impact) performance. With their focus on environmental, social, and governance issues, in 2018, 65% of Nordic companies were in the top quintile on TSI performance, compared to 41% for European companies and 9% for North American companies.
The innovative opportunities available in the printed electronics industry mean it’s primed to be an enabler for bigger societal impact, unlocking novel solutions that drive forward positive change.
For example, Ynvisible, founded in Portugal, with its head office in Canada, and an R&D lab in Germany, has established a strong growing presence in the Nordics to be part of this action. Its engineers, researchers, and industrial designers have been working closely with the Nordic printed electronics eco-systems on developing and producing innovative applications for their printed display technology across MedTech, supply chains, and consumer electronics, all with the underpinning philosophy of creating sustainable and efficient solutions.
The Nordic region is uniquely positioned to foster newly emerging technology in the printed electronics industry due to its collaboration, early-stage investment, entrepreneurism, and technical know-how. Not least, with its track record of successfully taking innovations to market, Nordic companies know what it takes to accelerate commercialization of new and emerging printed electronics technologies.
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