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The Transformation of the Factory – How Industry 4.0 brings human and machine into dialogue

“Application Center Industry 4.0”: a simulation platform for new factory models and a learning factory at the same time. Photo: Karla Fritze.

“Application Center Industry 4.0”: a simulation platform for new factory models and a learning factory at the same time. Photo: Karla Fritze.

“Up to now, a workpiece in a factory has been ignorant. It does not know what it is, where it comes from, and whether it is important,” Norbert Gronau says. “This will change, and the factories of the future need to be prepared for it – above all the people working in them.” Norbert Gronau is Professor of Business Information Systems and Electronic Government at the University of Potsdam and is one of the pioneers in the digitalization of the economy, also known as “Industry 4.0”. He and his team are developing tools to prepare the employees of the factory of tomorrow for this future.

 “In factories, more and more intelligent systems have knowledge of the production process and make decisions,” Gronau explains. “This transformation is at the heart of our project ‘Metamorphosis of the Factory‘, ‘MetamoFAB’ for short.” The objective of “MetamoFAB” is quite simple: to facilitate human and machine to work hand in hand or, in technical terms, “enabling individual entities to interact in a networked factory of cyber-physical systems”. Machines and robots have, to date, communicated mainly among themselves and not with humans, Gronau comments. If they are able to make their own decisions in the future – say, a workpiece is to take precedence over other ones because it is more important or urgent – they will have to communicate this decision to those controlling the entire process: the staff. “A classical machine never has to explain anything. We have to enable robots to communicate and explain their actions,” Gronau says.

The “MetamoFAB” project, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), unites several research institutions – including the universities of Potsdam and Stuttgart and the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology IPK in Berlin – with industrial partners – be they giants like Siemens, Infineon, or Festo or mid-sized companies like Pickert and Partner or budatec.

From machine operator to troubleshooter

The human being is the focus of the Potsdam sub-project – operators and their role in Industry 4.0. In a factory with increasingly intelligent technical systems, the role of employees also changes. They no longer merely push buttons or insert workpieces, but have to control, repair, and decide. They become “flexibly acting troubleshooters,” Gronau says. “We have to meet operators where they are and prepare them for their new tasks.”

The first step is gaining acceptance, since not every staff member welcomes these new “colleagues” with open arms. “We have to avoid a situation where operators think: ‘Oh no, this robot is going to make me redundant!‘ – because this will simply not be the case,” the researcher explains. “Many things will still have to be done by operators.” In a study on “acceptance of and adaptability to Industry 4.0”, Gronau and his team researched how firms can introduce digital transformation in such a way that their staff will embrace it. The results indicate that “a well thought-out and clearly communicated transformation concept is indispensable”. This means that the sooner and better the staff learn about their new roles, the higher the likelihood they will accept them – and acquire the necessary skills.

The Potsdam MetamoFAB project focuses on developing transformation concepts and the steps necessary to train staff. Researching knowledge-intensive business processes has turned out to be very helpful. “We have developed a method to quantify the share of theoretical knowledge in business processes,” Gronau says. Process models can be used to calculate what share of the knowledge – for instance in production processes – comes from the staff and what share from machines as well as how they interact. MetamoFAB researchers are investigating how this ratio changes under the conditions of digitalization and what employees have to learn in order to fulfill their new roles. This will ideally be established for every staff member, since some will be operating robots while others will have to program them.

Learning factories make employees fit for the future

In a second step, the researchers are developing concrete training and qualification models for the established “requirement profiles”. “How can the staff best be trained? Certainly not by handing over 300-page manuals,” Gronau says with a smile. “There are at least two much better options: in a playful way with serious games or through ‘learning factories’, where they are trained and tested.” One such learning factory has been set up on the premises of Gronau’s chair on the Griebnitzsee campus: “Application Center Industry 4.0”. “Here we are now able to simulate what a factory will look like in five years and test various scenarios, from malfunctions and program changeovers to changing order situations,” Gronau proudly states.

But the Application Center is more than the technical key component of the MetamoFAB research project. It was created in 2010 as part of the project LUPO (“Assessment of the performance of independent production objects”) as a virtual production environment for the simulation of any number of production processes. The Application Center is still being used for this but is now also being used for additional purposes. Gronau and his MetamoFAB team have converted it into a universal interactive learning factory. The advantage is that it can be adapted to the specific needs of various industrial partners. “While some are focusing on an ever-deeper specialization, others are more diversified and thus interested in universally applicable automation solutions. We can simulate this in our model, down to the workplace level,” Gronau says. Thanks to close collaboration with industrial partners, scenarios and qualification models are being developed “on the living object”, so to speak. This allows researchers to test scientific methods under practical conditions while determining if and how they are applicable – and needed.

“In fact, we are planning to commercialize these training units,” Gronau says. “Perhaps through a spinoff. There is undoubtedly a huge demand for them. After all, companies can use learning factories to test future production scenarios and to train their staff accordingly.”

Thanks to its versatility, “Application Center Industry 4.0” certainly has additional applications in store. While it has been used by the LUPO project as a simulation platform for new factory models and by MetamoFAB as a learning factory, Norbert Gronau has recently converted it into a laboratory for a new project: The German Research Foundation’s priority program “Intentional Forgetting in Organizations”, for which Gronau is a co-spokesperson, performs its experiments here.

The Researcher

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Norbert Gronau studied mechanical engineering and business administration at the Technical University of Berlin. Since April 2004 he has been a professor at the University of Potsdam. His main research interests are business knowledge management and adaptable ERP systems.


Universität Potsdam
Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliche Fakultät
August-Bebel-Str. 89, 14482 Potsdam
E-Mail: norbert.gronau@wi.uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Text: Matthias Zimmermann, Translation: Monika Wilke
Online-Editing: Agnes Bressa
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