Work 4.0 – Humans at its heart

It is the year 2025. The mechanical engineering industry has cemented and expanded its leading position on the world market. This success is entirely based on one aspect: the people that work there.

Source: KUKA Roboter GmbH

My robot co-worker: People and machines working hand in hand

With their lightning-fast movements, robots are extremely efficient. Everyone has seen the images on TV: our buzzing co-workers made of steel welding car bodies together at breath-taking speed. It all happens behind protective barriers, keeping the people in the factory safe from the steel arms’ fast movements. The approach is a simple and effective one: the world of the robot and the world of the worker are kept very much apart.

But robotics has now opened a new chapter: robots that work directly together with the worker in a shared workplace are now being installed. Not a protective fence in sight. The robot becomes a “cobot” – a co-worker or assistant. New safety technology makes this direct human-robot collaboration (HRC) possible. Sophisticated sensors give the robot the senses and perception it needs. These robots move more slowly, and often slow down their movements even more when a human approaches. They are generally lighter and more rounded, and some are even fitted with soft padding.

“Journalists and even expert commentators tend to overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labor and ignore the strong complementarities between automation and labor that increase productivity, raise earnings, and augment demand for labor.”

David AutorMIT Professor of Economics

People and machines can work hand in hand. But why should they? Because certain human abilities are – and will remain – irreplaceable, e.g. fine motor skills, dexterity, flexibility and judgment. But robots have other strengths. They can make sure that the contact pressure remains constant when a rubber seal is being adhered, or they can bear heavy loads. HRC allows people and robots to work directly together and each to exploit their own strengths, resulting in significant potential for optimizing production processes. Workplaces become more ergonomic. Many pioneering users also see HRC as a key solution to demographic shifts, reducing the strain on workers with physically demanding tasks, such as overhead assembly. Help from robots keeps these workers healthy, so they can keep working all the way up to retirement.

Germany, for example, has the third-highest robot density in the world, yet employment is still rising. This new chapter in direct collaboration between humans and robots clearly shows that the role of humans in production is becoming ever more important. It is a combination that creates good jobs and will become a cornerstone of Industrie 4.0.

Patrick Schwarzkopf

Managing Director VDMA Robotics + Automation

Patrick Schwarzkopf has been working with automation technology at VDMA since 1999. Having connected various disciplines in the Factory Automation Forum, in 2004 he began focusing on machine vision, robotics and integrated assembly solutions. He became Managing Director of the VDMA Robotics + Automation Association in 2014, and is particularly interested in the effects of automation on labor markets and workplaces.

Some revolutions are a long time coming – and then happen overnight. People used to have to keep well away from areas where strong rotating steel arms, often weighing many tons, welded, painted or lifted loads. And suddenly, everything changed. 2016 was the year in which robots were released from their cages and became direct partners of humans in their day-to-day work.

From then on, the machine took care of the monotonous job of putting the small components together, before handing the module directly to its human co-worker for further processing. A revolution in the workplace had begun: human-machine collaboration. In 2025, this is a well-worn, everyday working practice.

Digression: My robot co-worker

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  • Industry 1.0
  • Work 1.0

The steam engine marks a new industrial era: steam power is added to the muscle power of humans and animals. This means that much more energy is available. Production and transportation capacities are vastly increased.

Strenuous physical labor is eased through the support of machine power. At the same time, new technical qualifications are required for the maintenance and operation of the machines.

  • Industry 2.0
  • Work 2.0

Assembly lines allow the manufacturing of affordable mass produced goods. Electrification paves the way for it. But the more significant innovation is an organizational one: the extreme division of labor.

People with lower qualification levels find work in the many factories that are springing up. Due to the specialization on single tasks work becomes duller.

  • Industry 3.0
  • Work 3.0

Microelectronics and information technology transform industry. Machines are now electronically controlled, programmed and automated. Routine tasks are executed by the machines at very high speed. Productivity rises. Production costs go down. Sophisticated mass produced goods become affordable.

Automation relieves humans of monotonous tasks. Workers need higher and higher skills. Regardless of massive automation waves there are no net job losses: as production goes up, lost jobs are compensated by new ones.

  • Industry 4.0
  • Work 4.0

Industry 4.0 is all about interconnectedness – „machine-to-machine“ – even across the borders of individual companies. Manufacturing becomes flexible and self-learning. Machines organize production processes autonomously. Algorithms interact with algorithms of business partners. At the heart of Industry 4.0 are people. They intuitively communicate with machines, improve processes and work „hand in hand“ with robots.

People work more closely together with technology than ever before. Work becomes more versatile and creative. A high level of qualification gains in importance.

“The highest form of technology is not full automation or full autonomy, but it is automation and autonomy that are very beautifully, gracefully, linked to the human operator.”

David MindellMIT Professor and pioneer of autonomous robotics
But what does a production workplace in 2025 look like?

A dark factory, in which fully-automated machines and robots hiss and rattle in unison, with not a person in sight? Just a single bored supervisor who checks a screen now and again for insurance purposes? Definitely not! Humans remain the masters of the process, even in human-machine collaboration. More than ever, we will need humans’ expertise on production and customer requirements, and their nose for new trends.

Source: ABB Automation GmbH

2025 will see record employment levels in mechanical engineering. After all, history has shown that every revolution in production and every new level of automation has ultimately created more new and higher-value jobs. For example, this has been the case in the German automotive industry for many years, and there is no reason to think that mechanical engineering will be different. Work 4.0 – humans at its heart!

CHECKLIST “How useful are studies on automation and labor markets?”

The last two to three years have seen a lot of studies published on the impact of robotics and automation on employment and work. They are all based on very different methods, and therefore come to very different conclusions. How can we tell how well a study reflects reality? A six-point checklist can help.

Point 1: Does the model only analyze job losses?

New jobs and professions (e.g. app programmer) are appearing all the time. Are these factored in when discussing possible job losses? A recent study by ZEW suggests that 9.6 million jobs were lost due to technological substitution in Europe between 1999 und 2010. But it also estimates that at least 11.5 million new jobs were created in the same period. Always make sure to consider both sides of the equation.

Point 2: Does the model look at professions or tasks?

It is mostly tasks that are automated – but job profiles consist of “bundles of tasks”. Realistic models recognize that the composition of such tasks is changing. If waiters in a restaurant now take orders at the table on a tablet computer, they no longer have to take the orders to the kitchen. But we still need the waiters.

Point 3: Automation only happens when it pays off.

Does the model investigate only the “technical possibility” of automation, or does it consider its economic feasibility? Investments need to pay off. A hotel room in which a robot makes the bed (if that even exists) would be very expensive.

Point 4: Does the model imply that automation is generally better than a human?

The assumption that automation can always achieve everything better, faster and cheaper than a person is not correct. People are flexible and dexterous, understand the big picture, have tacit experience, can ask questions, solve problems and come up with new ideas. Automated systems are a long way from all that.

Point 5: Is the model based on the assumption that human work will be replaced?

Of course human work will be replaced by automation in many cases. Some work is actually impossible to do manually (e.g. miniaturization, microelectronics etc.). What is needed is intelligent ways to combine the strengths of people and machines. In such factories, robots work directly together with people (“human-robot-collaboration”). Most studies do not pick up on this.

Point 6: Is the scale plausible?

Many studies have a striking message: job losses on the horizon! But when the World Economic Forum announces that all in all five million jobs will be lost in the next five years, it is important to remember one thing: more than 1.8 billion jobs in the world were analyzed in the study. That means that the 5 million jobs mentioned above account for a mere 0.27 percent of the analyzed jobs. In other words, there is no significant net effect on employment.

How useful are studies on automation and labor markets?

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A person’s right hand

Direct collaboration with robots and highly-connected production have long been standard. What really matters is how day-to-day work is organized, scrutinized and enriched with new ideas time and again. A strict hierarchy, where one person gives the orders and everyone else follows them, has long been a thing of the past. Hierarchies are still in place, but collaboration has become more important. People at any level come together to develop and implement ideas, projects and solutions.

„The key is to understand that this technology is not about replacing people. It’s about harnessing the strengths of humans and robots to achieve new levels of efficiency and productivity that neither can achieve alone.”

Professor Julie ShahInteractive Robotics Group, MIT

Work 4.0 at Tischlerei Eigenstetter

Even craftsmen use robot co-workers to make work easier and create new freedom for the staff.

Collaborative workplaces

New workplaces are designed to encourage new ideas and new ways of thinking in order to enhance productivity. Rooms are an expression of culture, and the workplace of 2025 is a place where collaboration is lived out to the full. The adaptable furniture reflects the agility in the people’s minds.

Expression of corporate culture

Listening is just as important as making decisions

Everyone takes responsibility – those at the bottom of the hierarchy just as much as those at the top. Thinking for yourself and making a contribution are at the heart of how work is organized in 2025. But what about the robots? They can already work (or assist) autonomously, but will not tell people what to do. Robots still get their instructions from people. Humans remain the organizers of the Work 4.0.

Generation Z – creative and demanding

Another little revolution is beginning in the mid-2010s. More and more young, motivated people are choosing a technical apprenticeship or an engineering degree. But they have demands. An apprenticeship without teamwork? Too boring! A degree with a strict curriculum? No thanks!

Industrie 4.0, on the other hand, sounds pretty promising to them; after all, they feel very much at home in the digital world. Programming is no problem for them. But they want more. And companies and universities have finally realized that these needs have to be met. Not only to attract the coveted young people – creativity and innovation decide the competitiveness of a company, and thus of industry as a whole. What does work look like in 2025? Prof. Dr. Sabine Pfeiffer, University of Hohenheim, shares her view.

Work 4.0: Prof. Dr. Sabine Pfeiffer

Prof. Dr. Sabine Pfeiffer

University of Hohenheim

Prof. Dr. Sabine Pfeiffer teaches sociology at the University of Hohenheim. She has spent many years researching changes in technology and work. Interested in agile methods and Industrie 4.0, her work also focuses on social inequality and food poverty. Sabine Pfeiffer is a member of the Research Council of the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB) and the “Zukunft der Arbeit” (Future of Work) committee of the Board of IG Metall, the German Metalworkers’ Union. (Source: Andreas Amann)

The next ten years

Between 2016 and 2025, the concept of connected production (Industrie 4.0) will be put into practice in companies. Apprenticeships and advanced training are paving the way, with professions and skill development strategies being adapted and made more flexible. Modern professions, such as production technology expert, are finally helping to overcome the strict boundaries that used to exist between production planners and workers.

Smart regulation

As much as humans are essential in shaping work today and in 2025, they have a tendency to stand in their own way. Many are skeptics – proliferating doubt, with huge consequences. Politicians have come up with regulations before the new vision of work has even had a chance to emerge and prove itself. But people need freedom in the workplace, and cannot afford to be constrained by bureaucracy and over-regulation. Even in 2025, people will still be protected against unfair dismissal and supported when they are ill, they will have paid vacation days and enjoy their leisure time. But if the labor market is subjected to ever more regulation, the benefits of Work 4.0 cannot be exploited to the full.

Facts on Work 4.0

Digitalization is already a reality in many areas of work


of employees

work online (Cologne Institute for Economic Research, 2016)


of employees

in a digital environment can complete their work independently; for those in a non-digital environment, the figure is 56.0 % (Cologne Institute for Economic Research, 2015)


of employees

already feel that they are more productive today thanks to digital innovations (Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, 2016)


of employees

feel that the technical innovations provide noticeable physical support (Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, 2016)


of employees

in a digital environment can often plan their work themselves; for those in a non-digital environment, the figure is 43.2 % (Cologne Institute for Economic Research, 2015)


of employees

in a digital environment can plan their work around family life; for those in a non-digital environment, the figure is 53.9 % (Cologne Institute for Economic Research, 2015)


of employees

believe that they are up to the challenge of digitalization (IfD Allensbach, 2016)

The digital work-life balance

That is why it is essential to promote intelligent digital systems that enable people to achieve a better work-life balance. Complex knowledge and innovation networks are fundamental. For this to succeed, there needs to be the option of organizing work in a great variety of ways: working from home, flexitime, trust-based working hours, working hours accounts and job sharing. Flexible work and service contracts are also essential in the modern work sphere – backed up by the will of legislators to harmonize the needs of individuals with the demands of modern business. We need more space for opportunity and less one-size-fits-all state regulation.

The Authors

Dr. Jörg Friedrich

Head of Education Department

Dr. Jörg Friedrich has led the Regional Subsidiary Central and the newly-founded Education Policy Department at VDMA since 2013. The key areas of the Association’s work in education include strategies for acquiring young talents and determining the qualifications that will be required for Industrie 4.0. Adapting technical job profiles to new developments is a central field.

Patrick Schwarzkopf

Managing Director VDMA Robotics + Automation

Patrick Schwarzkopf has been working with automation technology at VDMA since 1999. Having connected various disciplines in the Factory Automation Forum, he began focusing on machine vision, robotics and integrated assembly solutions in 2004. He became Managing Director of the VDMA Robotics + Automation Association in 2014, and is particularly interested in the effects of automation on labor markets and workplaces.

Fabian Seus

Head of VDMA Competence Center Labour Market

Fabian Seus has worked for VDMA in the field of labor law and labor market policy since 2011, and took over leadership of the VDMA Labor Market Competence Center in 2015. His focus is on making the statutory framework more flexible and opening up new operational freedoms for companies and employees in the age of Work 4.0.

Andrea Veerkamp-Walz

HR Management Consultant

Andrea Veerkamp-Walz has been addressing the topic of HR management at VDMA since 1990. As well as her main focus on Work 4.0 and its implications, such as agile cultures and management, her tasks also include the topics of employer branding, employee loyalty/attractive employers, HR development, health management, CIP/change, remuneration and coaching.

Further links on the topic of Work 4.0

Spotlight on Work 4.0

Industrie 4.0 will bring about change in the world of work. But even the machines of the future will not be able to work entirely without people.


Institut für die Geschichte und Zukunft der Arbeit (IGZA – Institute for the history and future of work)

The approaching digital age is bringing both new challenges and new opportunities. Jobs in every sector will see changes. Within this transformation process, the IGZA hopes to provide ideas for how to organize good work in the digital world.


Manual jobs of the future at Miele

There is no risk of manual jobs disappearing in the future – after all, they rely on typical human strengths like dexterity, flexibility and judgment. But the increasing complexity of products still presents a challenge. The solution is to find intelligent ways to combine the strengths of people and machines. An assembly worker at the Miele plant in Bürmoos, Austria, reports on how assistance systems have changed her work.



At SEW-EURODRIVE’s Graben plant near Heidelberg, Germany, the vision of Industrie 4.0 has already become reality. It has changed the way people work. To show what the new normal looks like at the plant, we have created a film in which an assembly worker talks about how work has changed for him.


Green Paper Work 4.0 – Re-imagining work

Analyses and unanswered questions on key developments and fields of action in the labor society of tomorrow. The green paper is intended to trigger a broad discussion on how we want to work and how companies, employees, social partners and policymakers can shape the world of work.


„Why are there still so many jobs?“

Fears are increasingly being voiced that automation and new technologies will lead to mass unemployment. In this insightful paper, Professor David Autor from MIT paints a very different picture: one in which automation complements and adds value to the work of humans.


ZEW study “Digitalisation Boosts Labour Demand in Europe”

The progress of digitalization presents the question of how many jobs can be technically automated or even completely replaced by machines. A new study by Mannheim’s Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) and the University of Utrecht has now shown that automation has a positive overall effect on demand for labor in Europe.