From the Workbench to the Smart Factory

The topic of “Industry 4.0 – Growth through Technology” was the underlying theme of the MP for 20 executives from China. As proprietors and managing directors of mostly small and medium-sized enterprises, it was extremely timely, because it touches on nearly every industry.

In the summer of 2016 the Chinese participants had the opportunity to see for themselves how the Federal Republic of Germany is entering the world of “smart” industry in the fields of medical technology, machine engineering, trade and energy efficiency. “Everything is so clean, and you don’t see anyone standing around – so many robots and machines,” exclaimed Peng Li, the proprietor and managing director of a machine engineering firm in Guangzhou, while visiting the company Jungheinrich. The managers were fascinated by the efficient structure of the production line and the modern machine parks at the family-operated business Amandus Kahl, located close to Hamburg. They admired the technical and sportier and the high level of organization. This means that one of their top objectives was already defined: to learn from the German industry.

The topic of Industry 4.0 had such significance for the participants that Dr Xianqian Zhou from the German-Chinese Alliance for Industry 4.0 in Düsseldorf made an extra trip to Kiel to give a lecture. In his four-hour talk he presented the programme “Made in China 2025”, which China wants to use to reach Western production standards in terms of productivity and quality by the year 2025. It comprises a number of measures that aim to promote changes in the economy. For example, great emphasis is placed on the government’s approx. 50 Industry 4.0 lighthouse projects, which are to be subsidized with up to 20 percent of investment costs. The programme “Internet Plus”, which features cloud computing and big data for online trade also attracts a good deal of attention. The MP participants confirmed that Chinese companies are very committed to these areas, and they expect noticeable change and expansion in their business models and product ranges due to Industry 4.0, as well as significant increases in productivity, within the next five years. The goal is to move straight from the expanded workbench to a smart factory. Everyone agrees that it’s an ambitious target, because most companies will have to hurdle several steps of development in a single bound. It remains to be seen whether the goal of attaining Western production standards by 2025 is realistic.

Until then Chinese firms will continue to look to German engineering for orientation, because the issue of Industry 4.0 is inseparable from Germany and it can help open the doors of opportunity for companies to complete the transition to a smart and networked economy with its innovative solutions.

By Marlies Riemer-Lange
Business Academy of Schleswig-Holstein, Kiel