Industry 4.0 – Digitalization and the future of industrial production. Will we be substituted by robots?

Published on: 09 Aug 08:00

Franck V.

It’s a current topic: Our workplaces will be automated and the human workforce won’t be necessary anymore. We are living in the era of digitalization, industry 4.0, big data and artificial intelligence. But what’s true about the speculations that robots will substitute the human workforce?

Industry 4.0 – what is it?

The first industrial revolution, called Industry 1.0, began 1780 with the development of water- and steam-powered machines for aiding workers. The society of agriculture was replaced by the industrial society. A decade later, electricity made the mass production possible, the first conveyor belt was invented. In 1969 another modification simplified once again the production process: The Industry 3.0 was characterised by IT and electronics. And today we talk about Industry 4.0, which will furthermore automate the production process thanks to the progressing digitalization and cyber-physical systems connecting software with mechanics and electronics.[1]

Jobs will change but not disappear

Due to the fast technical development the question arises whether our jobs are threatened or not. The most citated study concerning this topic was carried out by Frey and Osborne in 2013. Their research result shows that almost 50% of the jobs in the USA and in Germany could be automated in the next two decades. That may sound dramatic, but there’s no need to worry. The Centre for European Economic Research doubted the study of Frey and Osborne and examined the reliability. They found out that although the risk of automatisation concerns 50% of all jobs, the probability of unemployment only amounts to a total of 12%. In many cases it’s not profitable to swap humans by machines. Neither educators nor artists can be substituted by machines, and who would like to be taken care of by a robotic nurse? Furthermore, it is way more likely that only fields of activity will get automated than whole professions. For example the job of a mechanic is now called mechatronic technician, but the job is still done by humans.[2]

Emergence of new areas of activity

According to a study of the institute for labor market and occupational research 490.000 jobs will disappear until 2025, mostly positions in the industry.[3] However, at the same time new fields of activity will be created relating to the development, construction, inspection and maintenance of the machines.[4] Besides, there are already completely new professions like online journalism, online marketing, social media management or community management.[5] In total, 430.000 new jobs will emerge, which means eventually a loss of 60.000 positions.[6] It mainly concerns jobs which don’t require specific qualifications and which are mostly monotonous and physically demanding.[7] It can be even a discharge if machines carry out those unpleasant and strenuous activities like assembly-line work.[8] Therefore, other skills will be required of the employees:

  • Flexibility: Because of the permanent evolvement, willingness to change and to learn is getting very important.[9]
  • Digital Competence: A certain Know-How in IT and digital media is nowadays as relevant as social skills and expertise.[10]
  • Intercultural Competence: Digitalization and Globalisation enable worldwide cooperations. Therefore, Intercultural Competence is indispensable for preventing missunderstandings.[11]

As a conclusion, it’s safe to say that our jobs will drastically change but at a very slow pace, so that there will be enough time for adaption.[12]

[1] cf. Tschirner/Scheu (2016), p.2
[2] cf. VDMA (2015), p. 1-7
[3] cf. Absenger et al. (2016), p. 6
[4] cf. Dengler/Matthes (2015), p. 23
[5] cf. Carstensen et al. (2014), quoted in Carstensen (2016), p. 187
[6] cf. Absenger et al. (2016), p.6
[7] cf. Tschirner/Scheu (2016), p.5
[8] cf. VDMA (2015), p. 1-7
[9] cf. Schlund/Hämmerle/Strölin (2014), p. 6
[10] cf. Bitkom 2016, p. 1-5
[11] cf. Schlund/Hämmerle/Strölin (2014), p. 6
[12] cf. Carstensen (2016), p. 189

Absenger, N./Ahlers, E./Herzog-Stein, A./Lott, Y./Maschke, M./Schietinger, M. (2016): Digitalisierung der Arbeitswelt!?, Mitbestimmungsreport, No. 24, Hans-Böckler-Stiftung, Düsseldorf.
Bitkom 2016: „Thesenpapier Arbeit 4.0 Die deutsche Arbeitswelt zukunftsfähig gestalten“, in:, (07.08.2018).
Carstensen, T. (2015): „Neue Anforderungen und Belastungen durch digitale und mobile Technologie“, in Schwächen des Arbeits- und Gesundheitsschutzes in veränderten Arbeitswelten, 3/15, p. 187-193.
Dengler, K./ Matthes, B.(2015): „Folgen der Digitalisierung für die Arbeitswelt Substituierbarkeitspotenziale von Berufen in Deutschland“, in: IAB Forschungsbericht - Aktuelle Ergebnisse aus der Projektarbeit des Instituts für Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung, 11/15.
Schlund, S./Hämmerle, M./Strölin, T. (2014): Industrie 4.0 – Eine Revolution der Arbeitsgestaltung, 2014, Fraunhofer IAO, Stuttgart.
Tschirner, M/Scheu, J. (2016): Industrie 4.0 – Was kommt da eigentlich auf uns zu?, Hans-Böckler-Stiftung, Düsseldorf.
VDMA (2015): Industrie 4.0 und die Arbeitswelt von morgen – für eine moderne Arbeitsmarktpolitik im digitalen Zeitalter.