The Port of Antwerp is the economic heart of the province. Until the agricultural crisis of 1880, the eastern part of the province was a largely agricultural region. The industrial development of the eastern part of the province, part of the Campine region, started at the end of the 19th century when industry established itself in the region. The availability of cheap labor, new roads, canals, tramways and railroads such as the Iron Rhine, stimulated the settlement of new industry. Brick making industry alongside the canals, paper and printing business in Turnhout. Non-ferrous metallurgy in Balen-Nete, dynamite factories in Arendonk and Balen. Tobacco and cigar factories in Arendonk and the first shoe factory in Herentals. During the 1920s, the industrial expansion of the region continued with the radium and copper factories in Olen, the glass factory in Mol-Gompel and the diamond industry in Grobbendonk and Nijlen.
In the 20th century the first nuclear installation in Belgium was established at the SCK•CEN in Mol in 1962. The European Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements (IRMM), one of the EU Joint Research Centres, was founded in Geel in 1957 as a result of the Treaty of Rome. Innotek is a technology centre located in Geel and is part of the European Business and Innovation Centre Network (EBN). Industry in the Campine region of the province is mainly located alongside the E313, the E34 and theAlbert Canal.
After World War II the Port of Antwerp was expanded and on its premises several chemical factories and oil refineries were established, such as Bayer, BASF, Monsanto Company. The chemical and petrochemical industry is widely represented in the port region and comprises the world's second largest cluster of petrochemical industry, next to Houston (USA). In 1967 Amoco Chemical Belgium N.V., now BP, was founded in Geel.
Pharmaceutical industry was founded in Beerse in the 1960s, with Janssen Pharmaceutica and more recently with Genzyme in Geel. Soudal (silicon) in Turnhout and Ravago (plastics) in Arendonk became leading companies in their markets.
The diamond industry and trade is traditionally located in Antwerp. At the end of the 19th century Hendrik Cassiers founded a diamond cutting company outside Antwerp, in Grobbendonk. Hendrik Cassiers and Frans Dela Montagne laid the foundations of the diamond industry in the Campine region. The industry would settle in Nijlen, Herenthout, Bevel, Kessel, Vorselaar and Berlaar.
The region around Turnhout became famous for its printing business, with companies such as Brepols, which roots date back to 1796 when Pieter Corbeels established his printing business in Turnhout. In 1833, Van Genechten N.V., Splichal N.V. in 1856, Mesmaekers Freres in 1859, Meses-Goris in 1872, L. Biermans in 1875, Poupaert in 1881, La Belgica N.V. in 1907, H. Proost & Co in 1913, J. Van Mierlo-Proost in 1918, Lityca in 1932 and Veloutex in 1951. More recently in 1970, Cartamundi was established, a world leader in playing cards.
While Wallonia was famous for its steel industry, the Campine region became renowned for its non ferrous metallurgies. The Campine region was scarcely populated in the 19th century and with the availability of canals, the Iron Rhine and cheap labor, severalmetallurgies were established in the region. In 1888-1889 the metallurgy La Vieille Montagne was founded in Balen-Nete, close the Iron Rhine and the canal to Beverlo. The company had its roots in the exploitation of the zinc mines of Moresnet.
The Union Minière du Haut Katanga founded the Société Générale Métallurgique de Hoboken in Olen, which was established along the Iron Rhine and the Albert Canal. The factory produced radium, cobalt and copper from the mines of the Union Minière inKatanga, Belgian Congo and Rhodesia. Along the canal Turnhout-Schoten the Métallurgique de la Campine was established in 1910 for the production of lead and antimony. In 1919 La Metallo-Chimique was established which specialized in the production of copper.
In 1872 the Sablières et Carrières Réunies (SCR), now Sibelco, was founded to extract the silica sand layers in Mol for industrial applications (glass). In 1920 the glass bottle manufacture Beles Réunios was set up in Mol-Donk. In 1921 a group of Belgian banks, the Mutuelle Mobilière & Immobilière, the Société Générale de Belgique, the Banque de Bruxelles and the Financière de Transport together with the American group Libbey-Owens founded the Cie Internationale pour la fabrication mécanique de Verre inMol Gompel. In 1931, due to the economic crisis, the company merged into Glaces et Verres (Glaver). In 1961 Glaver would merge with Univerbel into Glaverbel.
As the Campine region was sparsely populated several dynamite factories were established in the region. In 1875, the Societe Anonyme d'Arendonk was established which premises would later become part of Ravago. In 1881 La Forcite N.V. was established near Balen, which was later acquired in 1920 by the Poudreries Réunies de Belgique (PRB). In 1887 a factory was founded near Herentals, which was closed due to the vicinity to the city. The factories produced explosives for the mines and quarries. The factories in the province are now closed down.
Historically, wool processing industry was based on the wool from the sheep which were kept on the Campine heath. The centre of the textile industry in the province could be found in Turnhout. Wool processing companies such as Wolspinnerij Van Iersel,Spinnerij en Weverij Van Hoof and De Wollendekensfabriek Van Doren were located in Mol.
At the end of the 19th century Arendonk became the centre of the tobacco industry. Additional factories were founded in Turnhout, Mol, Geel and Herentals. After World War II, the ALTO sigar factory was founded by Frans Van den Bergh who would also play an important role at Janssen Pharmaceutica.