In autumn 2018, the WGP published the position paper “Industrial workplace 2025”. MM spoke to Prof. Peter Groche, in charge of the Institute for Production Technology and Forming Machines (PtU) at Darmstadt TU.
In its position paper “Industrial workplace 2025”, the WGP (“scientific association for production technology”) examined the societal consequences of digitisation and networking in German industry. The initiator and main author was Prof. Groche.
Prof. Groche, in general terms, why was this position paper necessary?
With Industry 4.0, we find ourselves in the fourth Industrial Revolution. This is accompanied by euphoric enthusiasm for digitisation and networking and the resulting optimisation possibilities. Equally noticeable, however, are justified fears, such as that of losing one’s place of work. Until now, nevertheless, there has hardly been any attempt to formulate a neutral assessment of the overall societal effects of Industry 4.0. With their position paper, the scientists at the WGP have for the first time evaluated the current technological status of German manufacturing firms and scientific establishments, in the light of which they recommend actions to be taken by the firms themselves, but also by society. We at the WGP have attempted to apply our know-how to shape the impending upheavals as humanely as possible.
On what key points did your investigation focus?
In our investigations on the societal outworkings of flexible automation, we initially placed production tasks in three categories: realising flows of information and material, making effective production installations available, and qualified implementation of production processes. For these three categories, we worked out stage models describing the path to full automation. This model gives us information on how persons are involved in this automation process and enables evaluation of the stage of automation already reached in individual sectors, firms or fields of technology.
What results did you succeed in working out from this?
The conclusion was that, in Germany, automation of information and material flows has already been widely realised, effective production installations are to some extent available, and the implementation of production processes is technically realisable only in isolated cases. For economic reasons, the highest possible technological level of automation has in the past not always been realised. But since the costs of automation solutions are sinking, the choice of a level of automation will in future less often be determined by financial considerations. Instead, the question of the technological feasibility of full automation will become increasingly central.
It has, however, become clear that we are still a long way from full automation. In particular, production processes for one-offs or short series will in the long term not be realisable without human intervention. We at the WGP therefore expect that even in fully automated, so-called smart factories, workers will still be necessary. As far as artificial intelligence is concerned, it is anticipated that production installations will in future increasingly optimise themselves. The learning processes necessary for this can, however, be speeded up substantially by persons with specialised knowledge. We are therefore convinced that well trained skilled workers will continue to be an important factor in the competitiveness of German industry, even in autonomous, self-learning production systems. They will also be needed to monitor the learning and activity of autonomous partial systems within a production plant.
In addition, the implementation of higher levels of automation opens up new opportunities for data-based service providers, for example in implementing suitable environments for machine learning. Here, too, workers will be required, although they will have to bring new qualification profiles with them.
One bottleneck which has to be overcome here is the education system. It is too rigid and, especially where knowledge of digitisation is concerned, much catching up to be done among teachers at vocational colleges, but also among professors and all other mediators. Our plea is therefore that firms and research institutions should mesh more closely. If they were to exchange their trainers regularly, for example, the transfer of knowledge in both directions could be speeded up greatly.
What help do your results provide for manufacturing firms today?
We have identified a kind of identification key with which every manufacturing firm can identify its level of automation in terms of the three categories mentioned above and, as a result, decide on the necessary actions to be taken. The important thing here is not simply to find out whether to go ahead with automation or to do without it. Concretely, it is the question of shaping tomorrow’s workplaces. For example, our model enables further training needs of workers to be pinpointed in advance, so workplaces can be developed along a future-oriented path. The holistic view of the various automation tasks we have sketched is of help here.
Do small and medium-sized firms also benefit from the core conclusions?
It is precisely the small and medium-sized firms (SMF) that benefit from the core conclusions of the position paper, for they are particularly affected by the hesitant attitude of young people towards a professional career as specialised workers. In our position paper, they receive well-founded assessments of the importance of these professions in the future. At the same time, it becomes clear that investments in the basic and advanced training of this group of workers are a critical factor.
But SMF also gather from the position paper that company-specific know-how on managing production processes is indispensable for a higher level of automation. This is available from machine operators as the fruit of experience and must be put into a suitable form for use by machines. In particular, SMF are often, and to a high degree, dependent on a small number of experienced workers. With automation, one could succeed in passing this acquired knowledge on to the next generation of machine operators. For smaller firms, moreover, a further critical point is that the automation process can move forward in steps. This reduces investment risks and can substantially boost the acceptance of automation among staff.
The position paper was presented to the public 10 months ago. Have there already been reactions?
We have received numerous reactions from industry, for in many sectors there is a growing awareness of the higher level of automation. This is particularly true of machine manufacturers, who wish to develop new offers for their customers based on the higher intelligence of their machines. The initial focus here is on improved analysis of production processes. The sensor networks that have to be installed for this and the relevant data analyses supplement the knowledge of the skilled worker. The size of the necessary investment, however, often gives rise to hesitation regarding the next step in automated activity.
Besides machine builders, however, providers of classical machine elements are also very interested in extending automation. They would like to enrich their business model with a more powerful blend of mechanical components and the possibilities of modern information technology. Not least, increasing numbers of machine users recognise the opportunities offered by flexible automation and are starting with pilot implementations. For the stepwise advances of this kind, more use is made of external information, which is often very motivating.
We have even received positive feedback from political circles. The Federal Labour Agency, for example, has used its newsletter to inform around 750 German firms about the WGP publication. And Prof. Peter Bofinger of Würzburg University, member of the expert advisory panel on overall economic development, has also praised the paper.
What help is available from the WGP for firms wishing to take actions recommended in the position paper?
Firms are very welcome to turn to the institutes of the WGP, especially to the authors of the position paper, at any time.
Will you be present at the EMO with the topics in this position paper?
At its joint booth in the Industry 4.0 area, the WGP will be displaying a multiplicity of research projects on automation, including completely new approaches to the use of artificial intelligence. Booth: Hall 9, F32.