Brussels, 29 Oct 2002
The virtual jewellery supply chain project (VJSC) is an initiative funded under the information society technologies section of the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5). It brings together partners from five different European countries. To hear their experiences of participation in an FP5 initiative, and comments regarding the next framework programme (FP6), CORDIS News spoke to two of the partners involved in the project.
The idea behind the VJSC project was to provide a tool to the European jewellery industry that would help it compete with imports from parts of the world where production costs are up to 50 per cent lower. The project aims to be the first to apply computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) techniques to the jewellery industry, thus allowing customers to design a customised product in a virtual environment, see a three dimensional image of the item, and receive an immediate cost estimate.
The project's prime contractor is Hean Studio Ltd, casting specialists who supply components to jewellery manufacturers. Apollonius Nooten-Boom is the Managing Director, and he brings both jewellery expertise and knowledge of CAD/CAM technologies to the project. His focus has been on defining the operability of the new system with manufacturers and overcoming problems associated with competing suppliers using the same central system. He anticipates the delivery of the first working system to retailers in the near future.
Mr Nooten-Boom believes that so far the project has been a success, but sees room for improvement on the administrative side. 'Money seems to be wasted on administration,' he said. Another problem is that as the Managing Director of a small enterprise, the cost of travelling to project meetings around Europe is measured in lost time and business. On balance, Hean Studio's involvement in the project outweighs the inconveniences, but such difficulties have meant that Mr Nooten-Boom looks to another of the projects partners when coordinating with Brussels.
The Technology Innovation Centre (TIC) at the University of Central England provides support to individuals and organisations on new technologies and their applications. Their core role on the VJSC project is providing technical consultancy and support, but having gained experience working on other EU funded projects, they also provide guidance on managing such a project.
Dr Tim Burden, the TIC's manager of product and process innovation, has been involved in the VJSC project from the start, and was one of the first to provide CAD/CAM training within the jewellery industry. He says that some of the key challenges to overcome in a project involving small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and any large institutional source of funding relates to their vastly different structures.
'The timescales and decision making processes are fundamentally different in an SME when compared to the European Commission,' he said. 'A quick decision for one is made in a day, for the other it can take up to a year!' Dr Burden also points out that the term 'SME' itself can be misleading: 'The difference between two SMEs can be vast, as they can range from 2 to 250 people in size. The EU needs to address the particular challenges facing micro SMEs when it comes to involvement in these initiatives.'
Another inconvenience for Dr Burden under FP5 has been what he perceives as a lack of flexibility in the structure and funding of a project in progress, something he feels is particularly important in the fast-moving area of technology. He would like to see new partners being brought on midway through a project to provide necessary expertise, and if changes to the original budget are needed, then this should be possible also.
Dr Burden believes that the new 'integrated projects' will address many of his concerns. It seems that the Commission is aware of such issues and has tried to solve them with changes to the new framework programme structure. Under FP6, new partners will be able to be incorporated into on-going projects, and if necessary, more EU funding can be made available to them.
Dr Burden concluded: "Overall, the process would benefit from being made more supportive, especially for small SMEs. But despite the hurdles, the benefits of being involved in such projects are clear.' Without EU funding, Dr Burden says that the VJSC project would not have happened, and he for one has every intention of getting involved in further activities under FP6.