Chemin de navigation

Left navigation

Additional tools

Autres langues disponibles: aucune


Brussels, 22 March 2012

Mechanical Engineering Industry – A large, successful and heterogeneous sector

The Mechanical Engineering Industry is a very wide and diverse sector. It mainly covers machinery and equipment, machinery for the production and use of mechanical power, except aircraft, vehicle and cycle engines, agricultural and forestry machinery, machine tools and other special purpose machinery. With more than 20 subsectors that face quite different market environments it is one of the most heterogeneous industry sectors.

Large and successful

Mechanical Engineering Industry is one of the most shining examples in performance of EU economy. It is characterised by relatively small family owned companies. The typical firm size is between 500 and 2,000 employees. Most of them do not fall under the EU Small and Medium sized (up to 200 employees).

ME is one of the major branches of manufacturing in the EU-27, with a share of around 9.1% of all production in manufacturing industries. As compared to other industries, ME firms are characterized by a relatively high manufacturing depth. This is mainly explained by three factors:

  • predominant small-batch and single-item production,

  • high qualification requirements in manufacturing departments, and

  • large communication requirements between manufacturing, engineering and design departments.

EU ME’s growth in productivity is on average much higher than of total EU manufacturing. Only during the financial crisis, when ME was hit harder than other industries, productivity broke down (table 1)

A job intensive sector with outstanding international success

The EU’s share in global trade with mechanical engineering products (ME) amounted to 37.2% in 2010, and around 3% above its share in 2000. This development contrasts to the performance of the US and Japan, whose shares fell from 25.6 to 17.4% and from 21.3% to 15.6%. China was the outstanding winner: its share increased to 13.0% from only 3% in 2000.

The EU ME is not only one of the most important providers of workplaces within the EU, but contributes also significantly to a sound current account balance of the EU-27:

  • In 2010 the extra-EU exports only amounted to 1343.9 bn €, whereas imports reached 1500.6 bn €.

  • For ME however, exports amounted to 200.4 bn €, with imports of 81.2 bn €.

  • In 2010 the trade deficit for total manufactured goods had reached 156.7 bn €.

  • Without the surplus created by ME, it would have been more than three quarters higher and would have reached 275.9 bn €.

EU ME employment development has been better than for total manufacturing, despite the fact that ME was hit harder by the crisis than most other EU-industries. Over the period 2000 – 2010, overall employment for the ME showed a decline with 2.6%, in the US, 3.3% in Japan, and 1.5% in the EU.

Resilience during the crisis has improved the EU's ME relative position. The analysis of the economic performance has disclosed that the EU ME’s labour productivity grew stronger over the period under investigation than that of the US. The Japanese labour productivity had declined. For the whole period under investigation, EU ME’s labour productivity grew at an average yearly rate of 1.5%, whereas the US only reached 0.8%.

The EU ME-industry faces a major productivity challenge

Japan is in the lead in terms of labour productivity (defined as value added per employee that can be taken as an indication for price competitiveness), closely followed by the US. Third in this ranking is the EU-27. This could be caused by heterogeneity within the EU-zone, which includes member states with substandard economic performance.

However, intra-EU regional differentiation discloses that none of the Member States comes close to the US or Japan. For the EU-countries under investigation, Germany shows the highest labour productivity at a level of around 70,000 €, still more than 20% below the US ME labour productivity.

Similar to labour productivity, wages vary among competing economies. The US ME have the highest wages per employee, with about 20% above the EU average. Despite a much higher labour productivity, Japan’s wages are only close to those in the EU. China lags far behind, with wages of 11% of the EU average.

New Member States will face growing competition from China

Chinese ME’s labour productivity grew in the period 2000 – 2010 with an average rate of more than 10% per annum, reaching around half the EU-27’s level. Current Chinese labour productivity levels are comparable to those in Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, whereas labour costs in these new Member States are much higher. This gives Chinese enterprises an edge and challenges these (new) Member States that are more focused on production than on R&D, design and marketing. They will therefore experience growing competition from China.

Innovation crucial for success

The “innovation intensity”, as measured by the share of innovation expenditure of total sales, shows a strong position of the EU ME as compared with major competing economies:

  • The EU ME’s innovation intensity is higher than for its US and Japanese competitors.

  • Moreover, the EU ME’s innovation intensity is higher than the average of all EU industries.

  • The EU ME commands an outstanding position in international technology competition, in particular in mechanical technologies.

  • In material sciences the EU is among the global leaders, be it nano-technologies, carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer (CFRP) etc. In CFRP, the EU commands a strong global position.

  • The supply of ME is not only of importance for all of the manufacturing industries, but also for agriculture, mining, construction and even the service sector. ME has been characterized as “the enabling industry”.

This means that it supplies machinery and equipment as well as process know-how to all its client industries, enabling them to produce their goods and services with an optimized use of input factors at an extraordinary quality.

High specialisation, market consolidation and Asian markets

One of the long-term tendencies of ME enterprises has been its specialization on certain market segments and its focus on clients with specific needs:

  • ME firms strive for an expansion of their product programmes to become full-value suppliers, i.e. to offer all the products and services a client could ask for.

  • Over the past decades a consolidation has taken place in the EU ME. Companies have merged or have been taken over by others. Medium-sized groups have been created that exist beside the typical medium-sized, family held and independent companies.

  • The value chains within the EU ME have been adjusted to the opportunities provided by globalization.

  • Suppliers within a value chain feel growing competition in bidding processes from non-EU competitors.

  • Asia has become an important region for the EU ME. Production locations owned by EU firms and Asian manufacturers have become an integral part of the EU ME value chain.

  • Asian deliveries consist above all of large batch, medium-tech products, whereas in Europe small batch production and customization as a share of total output grows.

  • This division of labour between Asia and Europe provides European manufacturers with opportunities to remain price competitive in medium-tech serial production.

Outlook - The strengths and opportunities of the industry

  • In the area of technical regulations, the EU with its internal market is a model for others with regard to its openness to international co-operation and its close contact with international organisations.

  • The growth momentum of the BRIC countries, above all China, will cause a shift of economic activity away from Europe to Asia

  • Even though all individual countries and the EU-27 are able to grow, China will be clearly dominating the world output of mechanical engineering products by 2025.

  • Prospects are bright, Economic growth potential is significant (see the tables 5 and 6).

Prevision: Total production for ME of the seven analysed countries and the EU-27 will grow from 527 bn € in 2010 to 928 bn € in 2025, equalling an annual average rate of 3.8%. Even though all individual countries and the EU-27 are able to grow, China will be clearly dominating the world output of mechanical engineering products by 2025. A second 'trade-adjusted' scenario is derived in which 60% of the growth is generated domestically, whereas the remainder is generated by increased demand of the world market. Using this second scenario, the EU-27 would be able to achieve a market size of 232 bln € by 2025, compared to the predicted market size of 204.7 bln € in the first scenario.

In the long run, growth rates in other BRIC countries may well exceed those of China. Although China is clearly leading in growth rates from 2000-15, those from other BRIC countries will become similar or even higher in the period thereafter.

Actual developments fit together very well with the long-term trend from 1995 to 2008. Average annual growth rates in productivity are 2.0% and 3.5% for manufacturing and ME respectively. As these growth rates have been very stable for more than a decade in the pre-crisis period, it is assumed that productivity will continue to grow at these growth rates after the recovery from the crisis.

Strong success on global markets is needed for securing jobs…

Even though the mechanical engineering sector is expected to achieve consistent absolute growth in the following years, this growth is probably not strong enough to more than compensate growth in labour productivity, leading to a net loss in employment. The evolution of EU ME must be valued against the background that domestic demand is expected to be dampened for several years by urgent measures to overcome the public debt and private banking crisis. Without success on global markets and stimulation by emerging economies’ growth, the ME’s perspectives would be worse.

and strong success means above all further penetration in emerging markets

Both of these paths of development highlight the importance of ME’s global alignment. Strong growth can only be generated if EU companies are successful in emerging economies’ markets. The EU ME’s companies are on the leading edge of technology and have always been leader in the supply of resource efficient processes. In this respect, the EU ME is not only an enabling industry in the domestic market but also in global markets. The success in the latter markets will be decisive and require a strong focus on third countries’ needs in products systems and services.

Climate change-related challenges provide important opportunities for the ME

Promising areas, such as resource- and energy-efficient products and technologies, technologies to fight climate change, etc. can add positive effects to the evolution of the EU ME that commands a leading position in international markets. However, the success of Chinese manufacturers of solar cells in Europe highlights the necessity not only to become a technology leader. Simultaneously, it is necessary to trust in companies with the potential and the ability to raise the means necessary to pursue global strategies. Moreover, in contested markets it is extremely important for companies to supply budget priced products. This means that resource-efficiency is only one criterion. In the case of CO2 emissions, for instance, foreign clients’ decisions will strongly be dependent on the level of CO2 avoidance costs. R&D efforts should be directed more on products and processes that are most efficient with regard to CO2 avoidance.

Recommendations to promote the mechanical engineering industry

The recommendations below are shortened and represent only a selection (for the full pictures see the report and its summary)

1. Organisation and industry structure

  • Only well-designed Cluster policies can provide solutions on how to better integrate SMEs in value chains;

  • EU ME companies are encouraged to focus more on non-price features and to become subsystem suppliers;

  • A call for stable framework conditions – also for upstream suppliers

2. Market regulation

  • Market surveillance should be improved, e.g. at border crossings;

  • It is crucial to create stable and reliable framework conditions;

  • A cautious stance with the introduction and review of directives is recommended;

  • Take into account the limited capacity of SMEs to come to grips with new regulations;

  • Industry associations should give a hand to smaller enterprises to comply with provisions as part of their services to their members;

  • Voluntary agreements as a powerful policy tool.

3. Financial markets

  • A need to incite investors to fund ME companies, especially in the area of R&D;

  • It is recommended that EU companies – even smaller ones – become more transparent for financial players and be open to new funding channels;

  • It is recommended that industry associations inform the business press on a regular basis on business climate and expectations;

  • There is also a need for the strengthening of the European venture capital market.

4. Labour market

  • Despite many initiatives, labour mobility remains limited in the EU;

  • A need for better labour market responses to cyclical fluctuations;

  • ME needs to compete on the labour market with well-known and large automobile and aerospace brands. Not only wage levels, but well-known brand names give such transport equipment companies an edge;

  • It is recommended that companies and industry associations start image campaigns;

  • Attracting engineers in the future: more attention to the female workforce needed;

  • It is recommended that companies intensify their efforts to co-operate with universities, start job exchanges and try to become more visible in the public;

  • A need for formal educational pathways.

5. Innovation environment

  • Focus R&D support to focused and promising areas;

  • Promote investment in those technologies with lowest CO2 abatement costs;

  • It is recommended that the EU Commission puts much emphasis on those technologies with the highest potential to become a global leader.

6. Access to third markets

  • Bilateral trade talks with partners strategic for ME;

  • It is recommended that the EU Commission strategically identifies countries that are of special interest as valued by market size and growth potential;

  • Beyond strategic initiatives it is of importance to monitor the compliance of all players in bilateral trade with trade agreements;

  • It is recommended that the EU Commission closely monitors Chinese industrial policies and FDI restrictions to check if they are in line with WTO agreements.


The Study on the Competitiveness of the Mechanical Engineering Industry1, which was finalised in December 2011, is based on data until the end of 2010 to early 2011.

The full study and a summary can be found here

1 :

An introduction to Mechanical Engineering: Study on the Competitiveness of the EU Mechanical Engineering Industry Within the Framework Contract of Sectoral Competitiveness Studies – ENTR/06/054 Summary

Side Bar