By Peter Ittermann and Johannes Dregger | TU Dortmund University– A significant condition for the implementation of the Industry 4.0 project in terms of comprehensive system design is a socio-technical system approach. The design-oriented approach assumes that the implementation of new technologies induces organisational and personnel changes and generally requires that the entire system of performance in production and service is considered.

The term »socio-technical system« has played a prominent conceptual and analytical role in research into work for a long time – in particular for investigating and designing engineered and automated work processes. Although not always defined consistently, a socio-technical system is generally understood to be a production unit that consists of interdependent technological, organisational and personnel sub-systems. It is true that the technological sub-system restricts the scope of design for the other two sub-systems. However, these show independent psychological social and work features that in turn affect the functionality of the technological sub-system. Therefore, this is not a question of »People or Technology« but is more about the objective of achieving well-matched designs for the homogenous parameters of the entire socio-technical system.

Complementarity of people and technology: situation-matched flexibility and human-centric job design

The perspective of a socio-technical system has found its way into the latest discourse regarding digitization and Industry 4.0. It has become clear that there is a particularly large number of reference points within logistics. On the one hand, because logistics is so wide-ranging with its impact extending beyond company borders. On the other hand, because logistics transforms societal trends, such as the sharing economy, into new business models and services for industry – for example pay per use. However, technology-focused discourse is now often reduced to considering »new« forms of human-technology collaboration or new approaches to work organisation on the basis of intelligent assistance systems. But creating complementary designs of individual system elements to form a completely integrated system is significant: Complementarity here means that the specific strengths and weaknesses of technology and people are considered equally according to each situation and that there is a plan to share functions between people and machines to enable the entire system to work efficiently and without break downs. The complementary design of the entire system should always focus on optimally exploiting the potentials of people-oriented work design. In this way, it is not only that fragmented residual functions with distinctive control structures are assigned to human working behaviour but explicitly that there is an emphasis on creating new scope for designing how work is carried out.

Social Manufacturing: interfaces as scope for action

The central scope for Social Manufacturing is therefore not so much about the functionalities of the individual sub-systems of technology, people and organisation, but is more about their interdependencies. Specifically, it is about interpreting the functional relations and the interfaces between technological, human and organisational systems. Taken as a whole, this principle is sufficient condition for exploiting the technological and economic potentials of automated and, depending on the relecant circumstances, individualised production systems. For their specific design, it is above all the normative specifications for human-oriented work and diverging social and labour policy interests that play an important role, in addition to considerations of functional and economic requirements. It is foreseeable that considerable efforts will be required by stakeholders in business, politics and science to make this principle become reality for the future world of work and production.

About the authors

Dr. Peter Ittermann is a scientific employee at TU Dortmund University in the field of industry and labour research. Dipl.-Logist. Johannes Dregger is a scientific employee at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at TU Dortmund University.