Factory of the future – the learning never stops

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Digitisation is one aspect of tomorrow’s world of work – another is the demographic shift. Germany’s best-trained generation, the baby boomers who are around 50 years old today, will be retiring over the next two decades. They will be superseded by a younger generation that is considerably smaller in size. According to the Federal Statistical Office, the average age of those in gainful employment in Germany nowadays is over 43, and as high as 47 in certain industrial sectors.

Demographic shift in industrial production

How does workplace communication work in mixed-age teams? How are professional skills best taught in such teams? These are questions that are being explored in the research project "Goal-oriented and demography-sensitive capacity building through learning factories" (only in German) at the Institute of Production Management, Technology and Machine Tools (PTW) at TU Darmstadt. "Mixed-age teams combine the enthusiasm of the young with the wisdom of the old", says Professor Joachim Metternich, who heads the research project that has been underway since 2014.

How do mixed-age teams learn?

Together with his team, the industrial engineer has studied three small and medium-sized enterprises to find out how employees in industrial production learn in mixed-age teams. This entailed introducing an improvement process that focuses on shop floor management. "Shop floor management involves the production team meeting in the morning to discuss – on the basis of operating figures – what went wrong the day before and what can be improved in future", explains Metternich.

Capacity building is not age-dependent

"The most important finding was that age plays no significant role when it comes to learning. What counts is a person’s individual disposition. Open-mindedness and a willingness to learn something new are not a question of age", Metternich explains. Age per se does not pose any obstacle to further training, in other words. But what can be learnt from this pilot project as far as production in tomorrow’s digitised and interconnected factory is concerned?

Preventing alienation – analogue and digital

Shop floor management was introduced in the three companies on a purely analogue basis. "The teams would gather around an information board to discuss the operating figures jotted down on it", reports Metternich. Theoretically, he comments, it would also have been possible to generate the data in digital form from the production system. "What is crucial, however, is that the staff understand where the figures come from. The correlation between a negative figure and its cause should be clearly visible to them, as otherwise they will experience a process of alienation that hinders their learning." Metternich therefore urges that digital systems should also clearly illustrate the correlation between cause and effect. "It must be obvious to the individual workers why a digital system arrived at a particular conclusion."

In other words, research findings about learning processes – even when obtained in an analogue setting – are equally important in digital production. Or at least they are if companies want competent employees who are able to solve problems. And such staff will certainly also be needed in the networked factory of the future.


Institute of Production Management, Technology and Machine Tools (PTW) at TU Darmstadt

Researchers at the PTW in Darmstadt come from fields such as engineering and work on optimal solutions for industrial production. This is done in six research groups, including Management of Industrial Production and Center for Industrial Productivity. The institute’s process learning factory CiP is a reproduction of a genuine production environment, covering 500 m², that can be used for training and research purposes. For example, the assembly of an electrically driven engine can be realised in more than 8,000 different ways.