Can you be an engineer and ‘still’ ponder the big questions of humanity?
This question presented itself to me last year, when I was looking to take a new direction in my career after a number of years in classical engineering jobs. So, there’s no Nobel Prize or Fields Medal for engineering? Oh well. But isn’t it paradoxical that almost everybody in the Western Hemisphere relies on the products of engineering (e.g. high-speed transportation in cars, planes, trains and buses) for their creature comforts, yet this profession plays no role in discussions of the really big societal questions?
Since I’ve always been more interested in bigger questions than pure mechanics, I needed to find a middle ground. So an advertisement for a research position on the sustainability impacts of Industry 4.0. at the IASS was very timely. It sounded like an exciting symbiosis of engineering and a much larger question with ramifications for the whole of society.
What is Industry 4.0?
In essence, the term Industry 4.0 describes the progressive fusion of the physical world of industrial production with the digital world of IT. Thus Industry 4.0 is one branch of the much vaunted Internet of Things. In the context of industrial production, that can mean, for example, that materials, structural elements and machine components are clearly identifiable and equipped with sensors, actuators and their own Internet connection. Beyond that, they can communicate and exchange data with each other. Among other things, this allows for a more efficient and flexible production process, where machines organise themselves as necessary and products can be tailored even more to customers’ wishes. Since Industry 4.0 represents a radical change, it is also referred to as the fourth Industrial Revolution – that also explains the rather cumbersome label with IT connotations.[i] [ii]
But lest we forget: the entire Industry 4.0 concept is currently not much more than a prognosis made by a handful of techies about the medium-term future. But it is a vision that has been embraced by experts and is attracting growing media attention. From the Green Governor of the Federal State of Baden-Wuerttemberg to Germany’s Labour Minister of Economics and the Conservative Chancellor: everybody’s talking about and expecting great things of Industry 4.0.
What does Industry 4.0 have to do with sustainability?
But how can you assess how sustainable a given future development is going to be when the precise form it will take is still very unclear? That’s the nut we’re trying to crack with the IASS project on Sustainability Impacts of Industry 4.0. To this end, we conducted an online survey among Industry 4.0 experts. They responded to our questions on the various sustainability dimensions of a future Industry 4.0 world: on the demand for employees and qualifications, changes to logistics and production processes and their resource and energy requirements, as well as the features and individualisation of future products.
Based on the insights gained in the survey, we want to develop credible and concrete scenarios that show how the industry of the future will design, produce and recycle products. Here too, we will of course be drawing on the appraisals of experts. After that, we plan to evaluate the scenarios in terms of their sustainability. There’ll probably be no shortage of sustainability parameters: in the last few years German industry was responsible for around 19% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions[iii] and 29% of total energy consumption[iv], while accounting for 26% of GDP[v] and 19% of all jobs[vi].
These figures indicate that engineers and their colleagues will indeed determine how sustainable our joint future will be in the medium term.
[i] Plattform Industrie 4.0 (2013): Was Industrie 4.0 (für uns) ist;
(last accessed on 27.03.2015)
[ii] Forschungsunion Wirtschaft – Wissenschaft (2013): Deutschlands Zukunft als Produktionsstandort sichern – Umsetzungsempfehlungen für das Zukunftsprojekt Industrie 4.0; Abschlussbericht des Arbeitskreises Industrie 4.0; Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung.
[iii] Eurostat: Greenhouse gas emissions by sector. Base year 2012;
(last accessed on 13.01.2015)
[iv] Eurostat: Final energy consumption by sector. Base year 2012;
(last accessed on 11.12.2014)
[v] Eurostat: National Accounts by 10 branches – aggregates at current prices. Base year 2012;
(last accessed on 4.02.2015)
[vi] Eurostat: National Accounts by 10 branches – employment data. Base year 2012;
(last accessed on 12.09.2014)