By Andreas Nettsträter | Fraunhofer IML – Digital solutions for the purpose of work organization help to design this new form of cooperation between humans and technology in the social networked industry to be as uncomplicated and natural as possible for the staff. The focus is on developing an »intelligent shelf« that communicates with people and recognizes their stress level. Businesses are already highly interested in testing the product.

Today, work organization is often regarded as a key component for the success of Industry 4.0. Here, as in the development of hybrid services in the Innovationlab, people must once again be the focus of attention. As »cognitive all-rounders« they are irreplaceable in the working world of the future. It is therefore important to adapt to their abilities and needs when organizing work in a flexible technological environment. One of the central research questions is therefore: how can work organization be designed in a way that improves employees’ productivity and satisfaction while taking into account their individual physical and mental capabilities?

Digital technologies are essential for the development of new solutions for work organization in the social networked industry.

Digital technologies are clearly absolutely essential when it comes to the development of new solutions for work organization in the social networked industry. Although labour researchers and sociologists are definitely not wrong to point out that it is in fact the very increase in ergonomic human-technology interaction making work more intense that in turn means new forms of work organization are necessary. Nevertheless, the digitization of work organization is a logical consequence of the social networked industry – always on condition that any design is humane.

The fact is that working time and break models will have to change (not only) in the social networked industry. Already today, employees in logistics and production, for example, miss breaks, interrupt them or take them too late because their work has become more intense or because the demands of the work – especially in terms of information and therefore psychology – have increased. The consequences range from short-term negative physical and mental stress and accidents through to an increasing risk of illness. Employees are off sick – or so frustrated that they leave the company. In logistics, this problem can be observed primarily in intralogistics. By the way, there are significant parallels to the current situation in the care sector.

If there is talk about intelligent shelves in logistics today, it is as a component of modern goods management. Shelves »report« when goods are missing, order replenishment on their own and thus replenish themselves again. However, researchers in the Innovationlab Hybrid Services in Logistics are now developing an intelligent shelf as the heart of work organization. This shelf is to ensure that work can be organized more flexibly by allowing people – as the conductors of the system – to work more flexibly. The main functions of the intelligent shelf will include employee recognition and communication with employees. The shelf and employees will be able to communicate via display, gestures and natural speech. It is particularly important that the shelf is able to recognize the stress level of each employee. Accordingly, breaks should be recommended individually and based on physiological stress parameters. 


The shelf is specifically equipped with cameras, sensors or microphones, and the employees receive respective digital helpers. This allows parameters such as sweat, pulse or blood pressure – and thus physical and psychological stress – to be measured. The systems are to be given a certain amount of intelligence in order to evaluate the various parameters. Here, too, logistics is very close to the care sector. In addition to fatigue warnings – such as those already used in cars – the system should also be able to give specific recommendations for further work organization, for example on the use of work aids such as exoskeletons, which are also being tested in the innovationlab.

With the intelligent shelf, the Innovationlab’s project extension until the end of 2020 thus represents an important bridge from the development of human-oriented high-tech solutions for efficient work processes to products for human-centered digital work organization. Renowned companies have already signaled their interest in digital solutions for work organization and intend to test the technology demonstrator in the operating environment. An essential prerequisite for implementation in practice will be the handling of the data acquired by the employees. In principle, it must be ensured that no values leave the environment or that they are passed on to a central system.

Dortmund, July 2019

About the author

Andreas Nettsträter, Department of Strategic Cooperation and Networks at Fraunhofer IML, is responsible for network management and knowledge transfer in the Innovationlab.