You have the floor: A new look at Germany’s ‘Industrie 4.0’

Germany presented her pioneering vision of industry of the future at the Hanover Fair, as early as 2011. They called it Industrie 4.0 or the 4th industrial revolution. Interactions spoke with Dorothée Kohler and Jean-Daniel Weisz, who work at the Kohler C&C strategic counselling agency and who together authored a book (in French), on the subject under the title Industrie 4.0 - Les défis de la transformation numérique du modèle industriel allemand.

You have the floor:  A new look at Germany’s ‘Industrie 4.0’

How would you sum up Industrie 4.0? How did it emerge?

Dorothée Kohler: The underlying concept arose when the Germans became aware that their industrial model, largely based on their leadership in the production of machine-tools and incremental innovation, was coming under threat of Asian competition, but also because of breakthrough innovation as and when the Internet pervaded industrial sectors. Add to this the fear that the Internet giants might try to monopolize, segment after segment, access to customers’ day-to-day data and corner a growing fraction of profit margins in the value creation chain for industrialists. In this context, Industrie 4.0 aims at counter the risks here by seizing the opportunities that lie in digital procedures and protocols: what is at stake is to successfully marry mechanical BIFFER engineering industries and the world of ICTs to produce tailor-made goods for the same costs as in mass production and to develop the Internet service offer, viz., connected services in relation to machines.


In your book, we note that you stress the importance of a collective dimension to Industrie 4.0 – why is this deterministic?

Jean-Daniel Weisz: What struck us in Germany was that the topic was not framed so much in terms of technology involved, but more as the “collective acting” and mobilization of collective intelligence. This particular feature stems from the highly deconcentrated nature of mechanical, electrical and electro-technical BIFFER engineering firms in Germany, with indeed very few companies having over 1 000 staff and few enterprises between which the customer-supplier relationships are very strong. For the Federal Government and the Lander (regional) Governments was – how can we get them to progress collectively if and when faced with a breakthrough innovation? Federal Government authorities notably answered this question by launching calls for collective projects. Consortiums were set up, with for example a major company or a large-scale ME (intermediate-sized company) taking the lead role, and behind them various SMEs in mechanical engineering, integrators, ICT companies and also research institutions or establishments. The Federal State plays the role of the prime contractor, creating the conditions that allow the actors to collectively assume responsibility secure their own future. This is a highly appropriate approach exemplifies the capacity in Germany to create new interactions among the actors and to develop complementary skills that will help gain a competitive edge for the SMEs and MEs who take part.


Is the situation very different from that in France?

D. K.: German State authorities have taken aboard the fact that an in-depth transformation of the country’s industrial model will necessarily lead to a societal project involving all concerned, including the trade unions. In German, the expression “Industrie 4.0” has become commonplace. In France, the subject is not tackled by politicians to any extent and the approach remains fragmentary, whereas the right attitude should be ‘”systemic”. What the digital world changes above all, is the value chain of the industrial companies BIFFER enterprises, doing away with certain functions and enabling the customer to be at the heart of the process thanks to product use data, modifying the relationships with their suppliers … Organization of work is also affected, with the emergence of new jobs … here we have a subject that stands at the interface of politics, economics, trade unions training and research. The changes will bring with them an opportunity that potentially is very rich, and which could revigorate a new economy. The universities have a key role to play, if we wish to see French society at large getting involved in the vision and benefitting from its effects.


You underscore the strong implication of research activities in Industrie 4.0, notably projects conducted in the applied research establishments such as the Fraunhofer Institutes

J.-D. W.: Yes indeed and it is interesting to note that as of 2006 - when then Germans began thinking about Industrie 4.0, the then Federal minister in charge of Training was personally committed to this industrial subject. Moreover, the strength of Germany lies also in a very dense network of universities of technology (technische hochschulen) and research establishments, notably the Fraunhofer Institutes that ‘irrigate’ all of the German Lander and became rapidly engaged in Industrie 4.0. This is all the more relevant for the Fraunhofer Institutes where their Presidents themselves are industrialists by profession. Social sciences – sociology, history of engineering technologies – are also party to the interest vested in the topic. All the more interested that it provides them with the opportunity, for the first time, to observe an industrial, revolution in the making, so to speak!


Industrie 4.0 - Les défis de la transformation numérique du modèle industriel allemand, Dorothée Kohler, Jean-Daniel Weisz, La Documentation française, Paris, 2016.