Mechanized industry robot and human worker working together in future factory
Blue Planet Studio / stock.adobe.com
2022-07-01 publication

Industry 5.0 Human-centric machines

While most companies are still in the midst of the Industry 4.0 project, the guidelines for the next generation of – more sustainable, more resilient and more human-centered – industry are being outlined at EU level. The specifics are rather undefined at present, and that’s by design.

By Manuel Heckel

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Editor-in-Chief VDE dialog

Only a decade after the last one, is it already time for the next industrial revolution? Exactly ten years after the German government’s expert advisers introduced it to the concept of Industry 4.0 in early 2011, the logical successor – Industry 5.0 – was already on the horizon. A report published in January 2021 by the European Commission outlined an ambitious vision for the future manufacturing landscape. In the world of Industry 5.0, humans and machines, sustainability and efficiency, and flexibility and resilience would complement rather than contradict each another. The Commission argued that the coronavirus pandemic had exposed existing problems in the manufacturing sector. Industry 5.0, it said, would provide answers to the problems preoccupying industry, including the growing threat of climate change, the shortage of skilled workers and recurring disruptions in supply chains. “Now is the time to make workplaces more inclusive, build more resilient supply chains and adopt more sustainable ways of production,” said Mariya Gabriel, EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth. Her statement accompanied the publication of the Commission’s first policy brief, which begins with a quote from Albert Einstein: "In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity."

More than technological innovation

Ambitious aims, to say the least. While companies were initially slow to engage with these subjects, the EU stepped up a gear. At the beginning of this year, its expert group on the economic and societal impact of research and innovation (ESIR) published a more detailed policy brief on the Industry 5.0 project. As things stand today, the concept remains something of wish list, a "transformative vision for Europe", as ESIR titled its paper. 

Jessica Fritz, manager for digital technologies and services at VDE

"Companies can’t just simply change their machines; even today, doing so is still very time-consuming and expensive. Ultimately, helping shape the shift to Industry 5.0 has to be possible and financially feasible for small companies, as well."

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While Europe alone cannot bring about a global transformation to enable 8 billion people to live sustainably and peacefully, the authors write that there is a special role for the EU in general, and for EU industry in particular: "We believe it [Europe] can lead the global community towards the deep systemic transformation that this and next decades [sic] will inevitably require." For business, then, there are already good reasons to explore the key themes of Industry 5.0, and not only to see where regulations might be headed next. 
The three pillars of Industry 5.0 – sustainability, resilience and "human-centric" industry – hint at the deeper approach envisaged, which goes well beyond a purely technological revolution. The aim is not to replace, but to empower workers, as the first policy brief states. Given the growing shortage of skilled workers in Europe, there are deeply practical as well as ideological grounds for such an approach. 
The use of robotics in industry has been growing for years. Automated systems are increasingly taking on routine tasks, taking a literal load off workers’ backs or freeing up their time. Industry 5.0 switches the perspective once again: "So far, automation has often been about automating people out of work," says Jessica Fritz, manager for digital technologies and services at VDE. "The big challenge now is to get people and robots working hand in hand." The potential applications range from cobots to smart watches and glasses. The importance of these systems can be as varied as the production tasks themselves, from delivering materials to specifying the next work steps and preparing samples for human review. As with other innovations, hardware costs have fallen significantly in recent years, making such systems increasingly attractive to business. That said, simply buying a new system is not enough. Getting people and machines truly working together rather than simply alongside each other requires clear preparatory analysis. "You need to set things up so that humans and machines make an efficient team, reinforcing each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses," says Fritz.

Training needed to make up for shortfalls in experience

To achieve real efficiency gains with such technology, employees need a good feel for where digital assistants can improve their everyday work. Augmented reality solutions like those used in logistics or maintenance are a good practical example of the challenges at hand. "Our studies of manufacturing staff show that acceptance increases where employees truly understand augmented reality," says Philipp Rauschnabel, a marketing professor researching this technology at the Bundeswehr University Munich. Where experience is lacking, training needs to compensate so that people do not shy away from new hardware. A challenge for industry is thus quickly becoming a mission for the whole of society. The need for new skills is evolving as fast as technologies themselves, as the European Commission writes in its January 2021 report: "European industries are struggling with skills shortages and educational and training institutions are unable to respond to this demand." In concrete terms, this means improving the points where employees interact directly with systems – the human- machine interface – on the factory floor. This can even raise ethical questions, such as when artificial intelligence is used to help prepare decisions. "When industry workers are closely collaborating with intelligent machines, it is crucial to ensure that the tools do not undermine, explicitly or implicitly, the dignity of the worker, regardless of their race, gender or age," the EU report continues. In the future, this means that designers, psychologists and educationalists are likely to have a seat at the table alongside IT specialists and production experts when these interfaces are created. "It takes a lot of brainpower from the most varied of disciplines," says Fritz. For the EU, the next stage will be about not just presenting new concepts, but also raising awareness. The name of the new concept may be catchy, but it’s also misleading and has led to disquiet among some experts. Unlike previous industrial revolutions, where the focus was usually on specific technologies (from the steam engine to cyber-physical systems), Industry 5.0 is first and foremost a broad vision for a change of approach.

The human controls the machine.

The use of robotics in industry has been growing for years. The Industry 5.0 approach recognizes this while also making people the focus of all technological progress. 

| stock.adobe.com/Blue Planet Studio

More an update than a revolution

Ailin Huang is head of sustainability at the Berlin-based TIER Mobility, which provides products such as scooters and e-bikes for urban areas. "Personally, I find ‘Industry 5.0’ intimidating as a term because it does make it sound like some kind of revolution," she says. Huang is also one of the two German members of ESIR. One can also see Industry 5.0 as an "update to Industry 4.0 with a holistic approach," she suggests. Another expert with reservations about the name is Kevin Lau, a research associate at the Institute for Entrepreneurship at the University of Münster who is working on the digital transformation of manufacturing for his doctoral thesis. In a joint paper with colleagues from Münster and RWTH Aachen University, he prefers the label “Industry 4.1" for recent developments. “It’s not an abrupt change," he says. "It’s more of a smooth transition."

This is good news, since it means that the new concept won’t derail any of the projects launched in recent years. From 5G campus networks for faster download speeds to fully connected, "pay-per-use" machines, there are many real-life examples of how the Internet of Things has already made it from pilot to practice at various companies. Lau believes this means we’ve "arrived in the implementation phase." Moreover, organizations and initiatives have put a great deal of effort into creating new standards to smooth the way for Industry 4.0. The results range from reference architecture models such as RAMI 4.0 to specific documents such as IEC 63278-1 ED1, which is designed to enable data interoperability. Experts are convinced that all this work will also benefit the Industry 5.0 world. "My impression is that people are very open-minded about the concept in practice," says Lau. 

Early advantage for early adopters

All this seems to offer a promising basis for the coming years. For companies, keeping a close eye on Industry 5.0 makes a lot of sense. "There are potential competitive advantages from every angle," Lau points out. Some areas will see ever more regulation in the coming years – especially sustainability. Germany’s Supply Chain Act, which will demand more transparency from larger companies from the beginning of next year, provides a glimpse of where things are headed. Additional measures to push industry to use more renewable energy and fewer resources are likely to follow through the major “Green Deal” project. The importance of resilience has become clear to many companies in recent months. Those that make their own supply chains less vulnerable to external shocks need not fear for their operations when commodity prices explode or megafreighters run aground. Meanwhile, human-centric industry is also in companies’ own fundamental interests. Skilled workers will come to expect efficient support from technology, and successful human-machine interaction on the factory floor could even give a boost to employer brands in the future.

Purpose and promise

While the Industry 5.0 guidelines reveal little about the specific technologies and developments that might be supported by future funding projects, this may have its advantages, as well. After all, companies that engage with the subject today need not fear investing in completely the wrong area. Huang recommends a pragmatic approach, looking at what functions already exist within a given company and “using Industry 5.0 as an opportunity to drive change and pursue ambitious goals.” By starting now, Huang is convinced that companies can gain an early advantage over their more hesitant competitors. "Industry 5.0 is all about purpose and future promise," she states. "I’d even say that it will be unavoidable in the long term."


Manuel Heckel is a free business journalist from Cologne

"The use of intelligent systems is changing our work – we’ll only make progress by working together"

Connection of robot and human hand
Pixelbliss / Fotolia
2022-07-01 publication

The EU’s Industry 5.0 concept foresees humans and machines working together more closely in production. This presents a lot of potential – and some non-technical hurdles, according to one VDE expert. Jessica Fritz is pursuing a vision in which humans and machines form a perfect team for digital production environments. A manager for digital technologies and services at VDE, she has long been working on the kind of practical cooperation that is now growing even more important under the banner of “human-centered production” in the EU’s Industrial 5.0 concept. In this interview, she explains the potential of successful human-machine interaction – and important steps needed to design technology that puts human interests first.

Interview