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Shaping the change LSWI

Shaping the change

Why labour unions test tomorrow's work in simulation factories

Robots instead of manual work, tablet and VR glasses instead of paper, infrared sensors instead of folding rulers. Over the years, digitalisation has found its way into almost all areas of work. Some have been revolutionised, including industry, whose digitised evolutionary stage is now known as "Industry 4.0". In order not to passively watch this leap in development, but to actively participate in developing the new working world, IG Metall is cooperating with the Industry 4.0 Research and Application Centre at the University of Potsdam. Here, in the versatile simulation environment of the cyberphysical model factory, works councils can test and experience how workplaces, processes and spaces are changing as a result of digitalisation.

"Five or six years ago, there was a relatively abstract debate on Industry 4.0," recalls Julian Wenz, who organises and conducts training courses for works councils at IG Metall. "There were many opinions on it, but hardly any experience. And even fewer people were able to explain how it would affect companies in our industry. So it was clear to us that we needed a practical application workshop for this". 

Since 2016, seminars and workshops on digitalisation have been held at the IG Metall training centre in Berlin - and, on one day, in Potsdam-Babelsberg. Here, just a stone's throw away from the historic Truman Villa, where the US President stayed during the Potsdam Conference in 1945, is the Industry 4.0 Research and Application Centre. In 2010, the business information scientist Prof. Dr.-Ing. Norbert Gronau developed the facility as a virtual factory in which chocolate or yoghurt production could be simulated and tested with just a few changes. Over the years, Gronau and his team have developed the centre into a universal interactive learning factory and an Industry 4.0 laboratory. Perfect for the workshop Julian Wenz had in mind. "In fact, there are not many people in the Berlin-Potsdam area who can do something like this: demonstrate the possibilities, changes and challenges of Industry 4.0 in a variable simulation environment - and do it for hands-on experience," says the IG Metall education officer. Dr. André Ullrich also emphasises the versatility, but also the special value that arises from the fact that the Learning Factory combines virtual simulation and real working environment - with conveyor belt and workpieces, as well as state-of-the-art sensors, interfaces, input and output elements. He heads the "Sustainable Change" working group and coordinates the cooperation with IG Metall on the university side. "We have the infrastructure and the expertise to demonstrate and make tangible to the works councils what many have so far been more familiar with from a slide perspective".

The cooperation arose from an idea for a joint research project. In 2016, Wenz and Gronau developed the idea of simulating the integration of new technologies in industry and at the same time investigating the effects this has on the most diverse levels of work. The workshop provided the ideal basis for this. Five to six times a year, works councils from IG Metall companies of all sizes come to Berlin to spend a week discussing the opportunities and risks of digitalisation in their working environment. "The central question is: How is work changing in the wake of Industry 4.0? And how can works councils help shape this change so that it is not determined solely by technological progress," explains Wenz. Day 2 already takes the participants to Potsdam. The morning is reserved for theory: The university researchers will introduce the world of digitalisation, Internet of Things and Industry 4.0. In the afternoon, the participants go to the Learning Factory. "Using various, very practical simulations, we show the trade unionists possible advantages and disadvantages of new technologies," explains Ullrich. Robots, VR glasses with voice control, digital assistance systems - here they are used in various learning scenarios. Decentralised production control, human-machine interaction, fault clearance - there are hardly any limits. In one of the examples of "do-it-yourself", workers can "on trial" maintain a machine in the model factory - with the help of a digital assistance system that provides assistance and works through a checklist.

Especially during the first workshops this was a journey into the future for almost everyone, says Julian Wenz. In the meantime, the proportion of those who had not yet had any contact with digitisation in the industry had fallen sharply. "Now many are already coming with experience of certain systems or technologies - and want to talk about them in concrete terms.

This is also possible in Potsdam. Like the experience and background of the works councils, the Applications Centre has changed over the years. A change on both sides, after all the development of Industry 4.0 does not stand still. New technologies and simulations have entered the scene. Where a small industrial robot used to stand for a long time, there are now voice-controlled VR glasses with an interface to the learning factory.

"Observer roles", explains André Ullrich. "Their impressions are then jointly evaluated. This is enormously helpful for many to be able to assess how the technologies affect the work of the individual". In accompanying questionnaires, the participants provide information on what is currently changing in their companies, what opportunities works councils have to help shape this change - and how digitalisation is perceived. Not all trade unionists are enthusiastic about Industry 4.0. In fact, these fears were a major reason for Wenz to include a very practical day in the weekly seminar. "In the Research and Application Centre, the works councils have the opportunity to see and experience what is in store for employees in the course of digitalisation. And they gain an understanding of where opportunities and risks lie," says Julian Wenz. A successful concept: "I no longer perceive a widespread general scepticism like five or six years ago. In the meantime, many come here with the desire to actively shape change.

Ullrich also emphasises that the application centre as a cyberphysical system, which already makes it possible to experience in concrete terms what is yet to become reality in many companies, also builds a bridge into people's minds: "It is not just a matter of trying out for yourself what is technically possible," explains Ullrich. "During their day at the Applications Centre, many also reduce reservations and fears and are then better able to deal with the changes in terms of content.

"The day at the Research and Application Centre is extremely valuable," explains Wenz. "Because the practical examples enable us to discuss all those questions with the works councils in the following days of the week that are important for their companies. How does the use of new technologies change work?" That is an important task of this day at the Applications Centre: asking the right questions and looking for answers together. Digitalisation and automation within Industry 4.0 is changing almost all workplaces. Most of them are changing, some are disappearing completely, many new ones are being added. Shaping this process is the task of the trade unions. Research wants to accompany it. The Industry 4.0 Research and Application Centre offers the best conditions for this.

© Matthias Zimmermann