For every million tasks a human performs, it’s been said that even the best of us makes an error between 500 and 1,000 times.

It was with this idea in mind that a team of engineers and scientists at Siemens began to rethink one particular shop floor. The factory in Amberg, a small town near Nuremberg in Germany, made controllers – the boxes stuffed with circuit boards and switches that act as brains for other factories. And it did a pretty good job of it, with customers from across countries and sectors, and a defects per million rate of 550.

But even that number felt too high, particularly given that a broken controller can quickly shut down a factory, costing its owners millions of euros per day in stopped production alone. So the team at Siemens began moving the factory towards greater automation, counting on computers to beat humans in the race for quality. In 1990, 25% of the shop floor was automated; today, it is 75%. And the defect rate has dropped sharply – to 11.5 per million. Output has increased 8.5 times while employee numbers and floor space have stayed steady.

Amberg has become something of a showcase for what automation can achieve.

The plant is Siemens’s testing ground for a huge development in automation, where factories act less as the setting for a series of sequential steps and more as networks – networks in which assembly lines communicate not just with one another or within the company, but with systems elsewhere and – this is key – with the very products being produced.

In Germany, the engineers and academics working to create this “fourth industrial revolution” call it Industrie 4.0; in the US it’s referred to as “the industrial internet”. General Electric describes it thus: “[It is] the tight integration of the physical and digital worlds . . . [enabling] companies to use sensors, software, machine-to-machine learning and other technologies to gather and analyze data from physical objects or other large data streams – and then use those analyses to manage operations.”

You might expect a world built on sensors, software and machines to be devoid of humans. But in Amberg, the 10,000-square-metre shop floor is populated by 1,020 workers over three shifts.

“A digital future can frighten people,” says Günter Ziebell, production unit leader in Amberg. “But we complement automated tests with eye checks.” More to the point, this project has created demand for people with experience and creativity, who can improve the processes. So the management structure in Amberg has become very flat, allowing, for example, line workers to speak with the IT department directly rather than go through their bosses.

Dieter Wegener, Siemens’s coordinator for Industrie 4.0, argues that companies aren’t pushing these developments forward – consumers are. We want customized products, we want them now, and we want them made efficiently, whether to bring down prices or preserve natural resources. This isn’t possible without networked production processes.

Excerpts from this article were taken from