By Michael ten Hompel | Fraunhofer IML – Whenever people have been speaking about the factory of the future in recent years, one picture ruled the discussion: the »factory empty of people«. The Social Networked Industry presents an alternative plan.

People and machines should communicate with each other in (digital) social networks in a networked industry.

The concept of (fully) automated production was, for a long time, regarded as a guarantor for absolute performance and efficiency because of the low costs. In the meantime, people have realised that the flexibility of production falls by the wayside in a »factory empty of people«. But flexibility is still a significant competitive factor for industry in the future: consumers’ demand structures have changed with a growing focus on individualised products in recent years. Industry must be the driving force and make it possible to change structures simply and quickly. There is now growing awareness that people can and have to take up a new role in this system. In the end, it is one of the undisputed strengths of people that they are able to react flexibly to changing processes, procedures and spaces. Having a high proportion of manual activities evidently leads to more flexibility.

People are taking centre stage again

To meet today’s customers’ requirements for individual, well-priced products, the strengths of both manual and mechanical work – i.e. flexibility and efficiency – have to be combined. This requires a completely innovative socio-technical system in which people and machines work together as a team.

Social networks, with their high degree of networking and their ability to act and interact, can serve as a role model for this new kind of cooperation and communication. In terms of the factory of the future, this means that people and machines should communicate with each other in (digital) social networks in a networked industry. This new social networked industry stands for an Industry 4.0 that puts people more in the centre of production (again) and benefits from their specific (communication) abilities. The principle behind such a socially networked industry is therefore a real alternative to the factory empty of people.

Among the biggest challenges here is the inter-company networking intrinsic to the Industry 4.0 system. Nowadays, production and logistics are not blind to the fact that added value has to take place in company networks. However, companies have to get used to the fact that not only structures but also business models are permanently being put to the test due to technological progress. That speaks even more in favour of the concept of »Social Networked Industry« with the increasing importance of (flexible) people.

Trustworthy cooperation

As a result, the principle behind such a Social Networked Industry sends out a significant message: Industry 4.0 needs people and serves people. To make the vision of people and machines working together become reality, industry has to get involved in this new way of cooperating, people have to be prepared for life-long learning, and the machines have to be equipped with a »mechanical sense of responsibility«. The relationship between people and intelligent machines will then be able to develop in a direction where we can talk about a sort of »trustworthy cooperation« in human-machine communication.

Specific steps towards developing a positive picture of the future of Industry 4.0, in which people and machines work in a team, have already been initiated in new research projects and networks.

About the author

Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Michael ten Hompel holds the Chair of Material Handling and Warehousing at TU Dortmund University. He is the Managing Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML and the Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Software and System Engineering ISST.