Helping small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) adapt to digital transformation is core to Germany’s industrial strategy. Germany leads the world in industrial competitiveness. Its strength lies in a system uniquely based on SMEs, often called the Mittelstand. SMEs comprise 99.3% of all companies in Germany and employ 56% of the workforce. Their continuing competitiveness is a national priority.
But first, if you haven’t looked at our previous digital transformation insights, you might start there:
How is Germany extending Plattform Industrie 4.0 to SMEs?
Germany’s Plattform Industrie 4.0 digital transformation initiative had limited influence on SMEs at its launch in 2011. To address this, in 2016 the German government introduced ‘Mittelstand 4.0’ as a key component of the digital agenda (2014-2017). Mittelstand 4.0 is funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWK) and focuses on advancing digitalization and fostering innovation within SMEs. It does this through advice, coaching, and knowledge sharing.
A new source of funding for digital transformation in German SMEs emerged in response to the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The EU earmarked 750 billion euros from the Recovery and Resilience Facility for member states and mandated that at least 20% of these funds be allocated to promoting the digital economy.
As a result, Germany is investing 7.4 billion euros in digitization efforts, including developing an industrial base with technologies like 5G and cloud, and bolstering the digital transformation of various sectors, especially the automotive and railway industries.
How is Germany speeding up digital transformation for SMEs?
Despite these efforts, the pace of digital transformation among SMEs remains slow. The digital divide between large corporations and SMEs widened during the pandemic, threatening the historical strength of the Mittelstand.
To counter this, the German government launched the Digital Jetzt (“Digital Now”) program dedicated to industrial support for SMEs. This allocates a total of 230 million euros from 2020 to 2023. This program, linked with Mittelstand 4.0, offers financial and educational support for SME digitalization. Beneficiary companies must implement a digital transformation program within 12 months, with funding provided upon successful completion.
Digital Jetzt support is structured into two main modules. Module 1 focuses on investments in digital technology, covering areas like AI, cloud computing, big data, sensor technology, and IT security. Module 2 concentrates on employee training for digital transformation.
A notable success story under Digital Jetzt is AFwärme, a heating solutions company. The firm and its 50 employees operate a system that combines various heating methods to provide optimal heating solutions. Facing challenges with their existing remote maintenance system, AFwärme was able to implement a new, more effective solution. This was possible through a 50% cost subsidy provided through Digital Jetzt. This enhancement has enabled the company to better meet customer needs.
The future of digital transformation for German SMEs
Germany is laser-focused on fostering the digital transformation of its manufacturing sector and SMEs. Battling through conservatism and entrenched ways of doing things is critical for narrowing the digitization gap to large multinationals. This approach is not only a means to overcome the economic challenges posed by the pandemic but also as a crucial step towards future economic resilience and progress.
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