World of Work 4.0 – opportunity or risk?

APAS assistant is the first industrial robot system certified by the German employers' liability insurance association. Thanks to its special sensor-laden skin, the system can work directly with people on the production floor without the need of any protective equipment. © Bosch

Digitisation is also changing our working world. Opinions vary as to whether this is for the best. While some people are glad to have more flexible working hours and challenging new duties, others are worried that factories will soon be void of humans. Dieter Schweer, Member of the Executive Board of the Federation of German Industries (BDI), explains why people will remain the most crucial part of industrial enterprises and what challenges lie ahead.

Robots with a sense of touch. Machines you can control with hand gestures. Electronic colleagues that tell you when they want maintenance. Is this just the stuff of science fiction? No, not at all – in fact, it’s already normal in many German industrial enterprises. What does digitisation mean for our jobs? Will they change? Will they still exist in 20 years? How do workers need to prepare themselves for this new world of work?

Industry 4.0 is changing more than just companies’ production processes and business models – it’s changing the whole world of work. What does that mean for employees? Should they be worried?

Dieter Schweer: I see a great many opportunities in this trend. We are gaining new freedoms by digitising and automating working processes. Space and time have already become irrelevant to the way many people work. This is helping us achieve a better work-life balance. Or think of older staff members. Interacting with robots can reduce the physical strain on them. Besides that, these changes are bringing more variety to production work. People have to spend less time on routine tasks.

According to a study out of Oxford University, 47 percent of workers could lose their job as a result of automation and digitisation during the next 20 years. Shouldn’t we be concerned about that?

Dieter Schweer: The only thing I’m concerned about is the fear that is fuelled by numbers like that. We all know how difficult it is to predict this sort of thing. For instance, that study doesn’t say anything about how many new jobs will result from digitisation. And other studies come to very different conclusions. The Centre for European Economic Research recently calculated that only 12 percent of jobs in Germany have an activity profile with a relatively high probability of automation.

So you’re saying we don’t need to be afraid that we will soon lose our job to a computer?

Dieter Schweer: Machines and people have completely different strengths and weaknesses. A simple activity for a person could be a highly complex task for a computer – and vice versa. When it comes to drawing a picture or writing a poem, a child in grammar school can easily outperform a supercomputer. That makes one thing very clear no matter what technological progress is made: people are and will remain the most crucial part of industrial enterprises.

Can we look optimistically into the future and kick back and relax?

Dieter Schweer: Yes and no. I’m convinced exciting jobs will emerge in the coming years that we have yet to even imagine today. But we need to prepare our educational system for these changes. Maths, IT, the natural sciences and technology need to be made more attractive, for instance. Besides that, shorter innovation cycles and new technologies will make it necessary for us to continually develop both our skills and our training materials. Lifelong learning will need to be more naturally and more systematically rooted in our education system.

Adam, a robot, has been a permanent part of the production team that assembles the Audi A4 since January 2015. “We welcomed Adam with open arms as soon as he arrived. He makes my job easier,” says Emil Betz. With Adam at his side, he no longer has to bend over. The robot uses its suction cup to grab coolant expansion tanks out of a deep box and pass them to Emil right when he needs them. And it does so at a height that is comfortable and ergonomic for him. It’s a big help for Emil, who is five feet four inches tall. “Because I’m not that tall, it was always really hard for me to reach the tanks at the bottom of the bin,” he says. © AUDI AG

Connected production sequences can help to increase productivity by 30 percent. Staff members get production figures sent to their tablets in real time so they can better control production. © Bosch