Demand for high-tech from Swiss SMEs

International research infrastructures

Swiss industry regularly secures contracts from international research infrastructures. For example, Imbach & Cie AG, based in the canton of Lucerne, forged massive high-precision aluminium components for the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator at CERN. Photo: Imbach AG / CERN

Major research infrastructure construction projects (ITER, ESS and ESO) or upgrade projects (CERN and ESRF) are currently being carried out. Because of high Swiss labour costs and exchange rate issues, international competition in these common technology domains has been very intense. Nevertheless, international research infrastructures (IRIs) are also looking for specific high-tech products and world-class engineering solutions that Swiss industry is able to provide thanks to its culture of innovation and reliability.

The analysis of contracts recorded from the Swiss Industry Liaison Office (Swiss ILO) over the last few years suggests five fields of competence where Swiss industry is able to provide differentiated added value compared to international competition. Broadly speaking, the sector is mostly covered by SMEs. For historical reasons, some sectors tend to be stronger in some parts of the country.

Photo: Imbach AG / CERN

High-precision instruments

Switzerland’s reputation for high-precision instruments is undisputedly recognised worldwide. The historical know-how inherited from the watch industry spread to other segments such as Medtech, automotive and scientific instruments. Many IRIs work with Swiss SMEs because they are able to design and qualify high-precision instruments for a wide range of scientific equipment and sensors, which must operate in extremely harsh physical conditions.

Complex metalworking and machining

In the area of metalworking, Swiss industry possesses all of the engineering competence required to design and machine complex metal parts to IRI specifications. Swiss industry remains competitive for prototyping tasks or small series manufacturing, where high-precision machining of metal parts, based on sophisticated specifications or multi-physics engineering expertise, is required (complex welding, vacuum and high-radiation qualified, precise metrology control steps, etc…).

Power electronics

Swiss expertise in the area of high-powered electronics was notably inherited from the former Brown Boveri Company (BBC). The proximity of universities of applied sciences and the ETH ensures the availability of highly skilled electronics engineers. The resulting ecosystem of SMEs around Zurich is able to deliver solutions for many electro-mechanical systems in the industry. IRIs run high-energy physics devices, which invariably also require specifically designed high-power voltage equipment.

Optical & metrology systems

Extreme short-pulse lasers produced in Switzerland are used in particle accelerators. Swiss atomic clocks are used to synchronise very large radio telescope networks distributed around the globe. Best-of-class Swiss-made laser trackers are used to monitor the proper alignment of multi-ton metal components currently assembled on the ITER site. A large part of this engineering know-how is currently located in Eastern Switzerland, inherited from the former Leica factory in Heerbrugg (SG), where a dense regional network of SMEs specialised in high-standard optics components exists.

Vacuum and cryogenic systems

Many Swiss SMEs in this sector are found along the Rhine border with Liechtenstein, as spin-offs from the dismantled Balzers firm. They have a global reputation in the design and manufacturing of components required in the area of ultra-high vacuum systems (pumps, gauges, valves, bellows). Moreover, large helium plants are needed to cool down superconductive magnets ensembles at particle accelerator or fusion facilities: Switzerland hosts one of the only two market players capable of delivering helium compressor turbines and associated equipment at the required cooling power level.