Did Germany sleep through the industrial revolution?

DGermany was four and a half decades in the age of electrification when the Hanoversche built mechanical engineering AG their last steam engines. The year was 1928. The Hanomag was considered one of the country’s industrial icons. She was almost a hundred years old and not only built locomotives, but also tractors, bulldozers and cars. Their piston steam engines had long since been among the discontinued models of the second industrial revolution. However, large textile companies continued to drive their looms and spinning wheels with the help of steam well into the 1960s. Only then did they switch to electricity.

In addition to resourceful engineers and open markets, new technology often just needs time to prove itself: one without horses, but from batteries powered carriage came as early as 1880 from the Koblenz company Flocken; it took an eventful history and more than 100 years to bring it back to life in the form of an electric car.

Julius Edgar Lilienfeld had already applied for a patent for the principle of a transistor in 1925; In 1947 it was taken up at the American Bell Labs and from 1957 onwards, through adventurous detours, made the basis of modern computer technology by the Californian Fairchild Semiconductor. The first modern computers were designed by engineers like Konrad Zuse were developed and built in Germany, England and America at the end of the 1930s – and from 1980 onwards they began their triumphal march across the board.

Concept from Germany

Exactly ten years ago, when the first concept of a thoroughly digitized industry was made public, it caused quite a stir. With good reason: like the US internet giants Google, Amazon or Facebook revolutionized entire consumer industries, the industry should now also be revolutionized. Thanks to new sensors, processors and memory chips, software, algorithms, data and network technology, machines should talk to machines. It was about factories without people and work without workers. Almost anyway.

Technology that achieves a lot: Industrial robots at work in a car factory.

Technology that achieves a lot: Industrial robots at work in a car factory.

Image: dpa

From a vague idea, three Germans came up with one valid plan including implementation recommendation did: Henning Kagermann, then head of the Academy of Engineering Sciences, in short: Acatech; Wolfgang Wahlster, longtime head of the German AI Research Center; and Wolf-Dieter Lukas from the Berlin Ministry of Research wanted to combine information and production technology in such a way that individualized products could be manufactured using industrial manufacturing processes. Custom-fit tailoring meets synergy-creating mass production. The connecting link: digital data.

A revolution was brewing. The three makers from Acatech called their concept Industry 4.0. A new trademark was born, as Gunther Kegel, President of the ZVEI Electrical Engineering and Electronics Industry Association, calls it today. Make it a school all over the world. It found its way into America, Japan and China.

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