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A lightbulb company can help us solve Europe’s semiconductor shortage

The shortage of semiconductor chips has exposed the vulnerability of European high-tech manufacturers that rely heavily on chip imports from Asia. The automotive sector alone, traditionally a European high-tech stronghold, is expected to take a US$110 billion (£79 billion) hit over the coming years as a result.

In 2020, high-tech products represented approximately 20% of total exports from the European Union by value, with other major sectors including pharmaceuticals, telecoms, aerospace, and armaments. Enjoying annual growth rates upward of 10% before the semiconductor shortage and employing more than 3.5 million workers, high-tech is the fastest-growing European industry by far.

Considering the importance and apparent vulnerability of the sector, the EU is scrambling to implement initiatives to encourage domestic chip manufacturing and reboot innovation at home. After all, Europe accounted for about 44% of global semiconductor manufacturing in 1990, compared to only around 10% today. This slow decline was the result of manufacturers failing to adapt after domestic first-generation cellphone makers Nokia, Ericsson, and Siemens were usurped by American and Asian competition.

Yet in the midst of this struggle for technological self-sufficiency, a European powerhouse in high-tech manufacturing was created by the acquisition of German LED (light-emitting diode) manufacturer Osram by Austrian sensor specialist AMS. The combined company is among Europe’s largest semiconductor firms and holds the largest market share in chips supplied to the automotive sector.

It is the latest in a series of mergers and takeovers in semiconductors that are representative of what has been happening in high-tech industries as a whole. Products that were once the exclusive domain of western manufacturers have become increasingly commodified as Asian manufacturers catch up, boosted by government subsidies that have left established companies struggling to compete. Yet at the same time, highly profitable and strategically important niche applications are emerging, which point to opportunities.

To understand why some companies have failed to adapt to a rapidly changing business environment, while others are driving innovation, it’s worth looking at the history of Osram in more detail.

Spotlight on Osram

Osram traces its roots back some 115 years to Austrian chemist Carl Auer von Welsbach, who greatly improved on Thomas Edison’s light-bulb designs with the use of a metal filament in 1906. Osram-branded bulbs started manufacturing the same year and went on to become the flagship product for one of the biggest lighting companies in the world. Osram later played a key role in the development of other lighting technologies, including compact fluorescent light bulbs.