Gateway to the future – Fraunhofer IAO

Leadership and Organizational Development

Visiting the Future Work Lab at the Fraunhofer IAO in Stuttgart

At 9 in the morning, we enter through the door to the world of work of the future at the Fraunhofer IAO. We stop at numerous stations that make all facets of industrial work of the future come alive. At a robot station, you can see how people and machines work safely hand in hand. Participants also experience the perfect interplay of humans and technology at a very futuristic-looking workstation that adapts to the current needs of each user in a customized manner.

Visitors also learn how older machines are made compatible for Industry 4.0 through retrofitting or how several machines can be controlled simultaneously via smartwatches. They experience how to work with self organizing teams on platforms, and how accidents can be better prevented with the help of sensors. Much of this still sounds like the distant future, but many aspects will soon find practical applications.

“Companies‘ great interest in the Future Work Lab shows that people are curious. They want to understand what to expect,” says Moritz Hämmerle. “Among other things, we are also interested in reducing fears. To demonstrate: What role do I as a human being have in the working world of the future? Which qualifications are needed? But also: How can the world of work become simpler and better in the future?”

Questions that, of course, need to be answered, especially by companies themselves, and not only in closed conference rooms on the management floor. “The topic of the future of work belongs on the shop floor,” says the Fraunhofer expert. “Employees and management must take the path to the new world of work together. Only then will they be crowned with success.”

You criticize the isolation of information when it comes to the topic of Industry 4.0. Why are you worried?

Hämmerle: Some companies still believe that Industry 4.0 is a vision for the distant future. But it‘s not. It‘s already here. Companies are now facing the challenge of introducing new technologies into operational processes. And they also need to make sure their employees are up to speed. Changes are only successful when they have positive economic effects and if they are supported by the workforce. In summary: If you try to implement digitization projects without involving your employees, it will be a spectacular failure.

In concrete terms: How can companies avoid this isolation of information?

Pokorni: Festo is a good example of how to take your workforce on a journey into the digital future. Among other activities, the company is organizing a scavenger hunt on Industry 4.0 in its factory. Employees are introduced to the new world in many ways. Here at the Fraunhofer IAO, we have also developed a simulation game for companies – and for all employees right up to the management board. The goal is to empower people to take an active role in implementing changes. In our experience, people are becoming more open to the topic because they see that the future may not be as bad as they imagined. If you are interested in this game – Akteure 4.0 (Actors 4.0) – you are welcome to contact us.

What do you recommend to companies?

Hämmerle: Well, we just described the first step. After sensitization, the second step includes initial application as a lighthouse project, which is widely reported. In the third step, employees take on an active role. Applications can be identified and developed together with them. For this, employees also need a greater degree of freedom. They learn what it means for the organization of their day-to-day work when, for example, they work with data glasses instead of using paper and pencil in quality assurance. And even for older employees, reservations quickly disappear when they see the benefits and added value of new technology.

In your experience, do medium-sized companies find it particularly difficult to drive digitization?

Pokorni: Here in the Future Lab, we not only talk to large corporations but also to many SMEs. Overall, we find that the speed and willingness to dive into the subject is still very subdued in many ways. They don‘t yet see the opportunities. And since order books are full, such strategic topics that compliment day-to-day business are neglected. If you want to secure your own future, you have to find your own way into the digital world with new business models – and do it now. I would like to see more courage and innovative spirit from companies.

What else would you like to tell company bosses?

Hämmerle: It‘s not enough to just buy technology. Businesses also need to transform their organization and move away from centralized structures, in order to make digitization a success. A key issue is how to work together in the future and how to form an innovation-friendly environment.

Pokorni: New technologies are creating entirely new ways of uniquely organizing work, making it more flexible and connected than what is currently possible in today‘s isolated companies. It is certainly possible to also establish a Scrum Team on the shop floor. I am convinced that it can work! In factories, assembly lines are being eliminated, the work of tomorrow is flexible and versatile. This includes mechanisms for self-control and agility in the workshops! The next generation expects this and it will make factories faster and more agile.

companies´great interest in the future work lab shows that people are curious. they want to understand what to expect.

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