Industrial workplace 2025

Industry 4.0 – What happens to the humans?

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Demand for skilled workers depends on various variables

Departing from the model for automated driving, the WGP base model for production includes three task areas which have to be taken into consideration: material and information flows (networking), the state of the installation (operational status), and the production process in question. “With this model, firms can place and visualise their existing or future production systems,” says Groche. “At the same time, they can quantify the automation level for extremely varied production processes and detect the areas in which there is still potential for further automation.” For each of the task areas, five to six levels of operator-centred processing, going up to flexible full automation, were defined.

The scientists themselves used the phase model in order to analyse the current status of automation in German manufacturing firms. According to this, there are still a wide gap between the current state of automation and full automation. “One can assume, however, that the optimisation of production installation and processes will in future no longer be carried out exclusively by human beings, but that the production installations themselves will increasingly take over this task,” opines Prof. Bernd-Arno Behrens, leader of the Institute for Forming Technology and Forming Machines (IFUM) at the Leibniz University in Hannover. “Nevertheless, we believe that in the long term humans will not become superfluous, even in the smart factory of the future. For specialist workers of all kinds will be needed to guide the autonomous, self-teaching production systems during the learning process. And, not least, there will be a need for staff who monitor the autonomous partial systems of production installation and carry out service and maintenance,” Behrens states confidently. “In addition, new business models are arising, such as in the fields of data-based services or machine learning. On this side, too, people with new qualification profiles will be needed.”

Process understanding must be maintained despite automation

The way in which the demand for skilled workers will develop in the coming years ultimately depends on the extent to which German firms with worldwide networks, having already transferred parts of their production to low-wage countries, will then bring simple tasks back to high-wage countries if this makes sense from an economic point of view. “This would mean that responsibility for production, and thus also the management of the entire process chain, would again be united in one place. This should not be underestimated as an advantage for firms,” Behrens reminds us.

Because of the high qualifications and the understanding of processes among skilled workers, Germany still has competitive advantage on the international market. “If we wish to maintain our current lead over less developed countries, we certainly have to make sure that workers in manufacturing businesses continue to have an understanding of processes so that, in the face of increasing automation, they are still in position to follow processes logically and, when necessary, intervene effectively”, Behrens warns us.

But even now, as is generally known, employers are seeking and begging for workers with additional qualifications in areas such as IT and mechatronics. Prof. Jens Wulfsberg, leader of the Laboratory for Production Technology (LaFT) at the Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, calls for changes: “The current system for basic and advanced training is not dynamic enough to keep up with the dizzying development of technology.” Teachers at occupational schools and professors, for example, are meant to be training the skilled workers of tomorrow – and are themselves often not up-to-date with digitisation. The WGP therefore advises firms to continue to interact with research institutes and to exchange personnel so the constant transfer of knowledge is guaranteed in both directions. “In addition, we should organise update courses in our research institutes for training or occupational teachers,” says Wulfsberg. With its Production Academy, the WGP has already contributed to an acceleration in the transfer of knowledge. For the future, it is moreover planning online learning modules in order to compensate for bottlenecks in occupational training.

Whichever scenario may prove true for industrial workers, the increasing individualisation of products and the multiplication of production processes mean that in future they will have to work more independently. For Behrens, one thing is certain: “Besides specific specialist qualifications, teamwork and flexibility will be important aspects for the industrial worker of tomorrow.”

* Gerda Kneifel is the Press Officer of the Scientific Society for Production Technology (WGP) in D-60325 Frankfurt am Main, Tel. (00 49 - 69) 75 60 81-32, kneifel@wgp.de

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