Industrial workplace 2025 Industry 4.0 – What happens to the humans?
Prof. Peter Groche, leader of the Institute for Production Technology and Forming Machines (PtU) at Darmstadt TU, is certain that “the move towards autonomous production is a holistic challenge for society”. The Institute is a member of the Scientific Society for Production Technology (WGP), which this summer will publish its viewpoint paper on Industry Workplace 2025.
The first Industrial Revolution, which took hold all over the world from a starting point in Great Britain in the second half of the 18th century, led to societal upheavals on a previously unknown scale. It is true that mechanisation made it possible for the first time for many workers without special training to find work. At the same time, however, numerous well trained, specialised craftsmen lost the basis of their existence.
Like every Industrial Revolution, the fourth one will likewise be accompanied by great hopes, but also by anxieties – especially the anxiety for many of losing their jobs. Since all the industrial revolutions have had a strong influence on societal and many individual developments, it is necessary to examine thoroughly the opportunities and challenges presented by Industry 4.0. “For the goal is to create the most humane possible Industrial Revolution – or rather Evolution “, states Prof. Peter Groche, initiator of the WGP Initiative and leader of the Institute for Production Technology and Forming Machines (PtU) at Darmstadt TU. “With our viewpoint paper on Industry Workplace 2025, we have used a new model to assess current and anticipated technological developments in industrial automation and deduce necessary responses on the part of firms and society”, so Groche.
What role will the human being play in the future?
The VDMA study “Industry 4.0 – Qualification 2025” (Pfeiffer et al. 2016) has already indicated what smart factories with flexible, fully automated production processes could mean for employees – and thus particularly for operators of installations and machines. In this paper, experts envisage three possible future scenarios: In Scenario 1 (Growing Gap), the skills gap among employees will widen even more. A small elite of skilled workers and academics will add to their qualifications, while today’s skilled workers in the operative segment will need fewer qualifications. Scenario 2 (General Upgrade) describes the general raising of the qualification level, with increased demands made on workers. Finally, in Scenario 3 (Central Link), it is assumed that certain groups will require higher qualifications and will then occupy interface positions between the various hierarchical levels or functional areas.
“We have added a fourth scenario to these three, the scenario General Downgrade”, explains Prof. Jörg Krüger, leader of the Specialist Area at industrial Automation Technology at the Institute for Machine Tools and Factory Operations (IWF) at Berlin TU and also leader of the business area Automation Technology at the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Installations and Design Engineering Technology (IPK) in Berlin. In this scenario, the qualifications of the firm’s employees generally sink. The WGP also surveyed “representative industrial stakeholders” (in total 45 manufacturers of installations machines and 75 machine users from the most varied sectors). In the process, it became clear that this fourth scenario can certainly be considered realistic. It was furthermore obvious that machine manufacturers and users have contrary views regarding the future of employees.
“Machine manufacturers tend to assume a General Downgrade, while the users see the need for rising qualifications,” said Krüger, summarising. “This is probably due to the differing views on the machines. Manufacturers tend to focus on the machine, whereas users focus more on the product and process side.” For this reason, manufacturers can simply see the increasing intelligence of the machines they make, while users look at the multifarious fault sources and process optimisation, both of which are currently still regulated by workers. In the users’ view, therefore, the dominant factor is the acquisition of knowledge of information technologies and process know-how. And they assume that this will remain the case in the coming 10 years and that the requirement for skilled workers, in particular for skilled workers with extendable specialist qualifications, will rise significantly. At the same time, many machine users anticipate a falling demand for unskilled workers.
Based on these results, the WGP authors have defined phases of automation in production, for which they have drawn on the phase model for automated driving. The aim is to give firms a kind of key for evaluating the state-of-the-art in their automation area and for estimating which responses will be necessary in the future – not least regarding the qualifications of their workers. For automation is not always necessary or even sensible, nor is it suitable at every point along the production chain.
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.”