Humans & Machines
The dynamically changing nature of work
Virtually every single Audi that rolls off the assembly line is one of a kind. The variety is vast. This requires extremely flexible production processes. This trend toward personalisation can not only be observed on products; it also defines the requirements of employees with respect to things such as working hours, the workplace, working practices and work content.
“These days, careers adapt to the employee’s phase in life, not the other way around.”
Co-workers are sitting, deep in conversation at the entrance to office building T02 at Technical Development. A couple of steps further, voices can be heard through one of the two revolving doors. In the colourfully decorated cafeteria with high tables and sitting areas, the prevailing atmosphere is one of a motivated work environment. “There is a strong desire for personalisation,” confirms Dr. Jochen Haberland, Head of HR Policy and Key Issues at Audi. “This also impacts seemingly very trivial things such as interior design: It involves more than just quiet corners in open-plan offices – it also calls for an ambiance that promotes creativity and makes it possible to network with colleagues.”
Still, even in the 21st century, cars are built on an assembly line in a production hall. There's no question that work in Production is very different from, for example, work in an office. The workstations in a precisely timed production facility must be staffed at all times. Yet there is freedom for Production employees even within the shift system, Karl Unger says: “The group-work system introduced many years ago allowed various work positions to be staffed flexibly, such as in rotation.” Aside from changing workstations and the part-time models offered by Audi, there are however some limits to the options for variation in Production.
So will that change in the future? “Progress that’s being made in cooperation between humans and machines could relax the situation in the future,” says Wilhelm Bauer, predicting future improvements. “When, for example, partially automated systems in assembly support this type of group work, so that not every station has to be continuously staffed any longer.”
Humans and machines hand in hand
Rationalisation through digitalisation: Is there a risk in coming years of a battle for supremacy between humans and machines? Concern about losing your own job due to technical advances is not a new phenomenon. Since the dawn of the industrial age, occupations have repeatedly disappeared – and with them, at first glance, jobs ceased to exist. But in many cases, completely new occupations – and therefore new fields of activity – have been created at the same time. Wilhelm Bauer views future development as an opportunity: “We should not be so focused on the question of how many jobs will be eliminated – or in what time frame. We should instead be concerning ourselves with how companies can in the future create interesting products and sufficient added value in order to generate new, interesting work.”
The use of industrial robots does not at all automatically mean that jobs will be eliminated. On the contrary, a body shop of today’s scale would be unthinkable without robots. One example at the main plant in Ingolstadt shows that robots could also take on more tasks on the assembly line: There on the Audi A4 assembly line, a robot has been used for more than a year, working hand in hand with the people – without a safety barrier.
“This is Adam,” says Audi employee Rainer Kölbl, introducing his one-armed colleague. With a suction cup, Adam fishes an expansion tank for coolant out of a large box and hands it over, always at the right speed and in the correct position. “This takes the strain off my back and saves me a step in the process,” Kölbl says, listing the ergonomic advantages of the orange robot. He watches its flowing movement as Adam’s arm disappears into the transport box again. Such human-robot cooperation opens up new possibilities for letting machines take over strenuous and ergonomically problematic tasks in the future.
“Here, the robot has to be working at the same pace as the human – not the human working at the robot’s pace,” Karl Unger emphasises. “If we keep this rule sacred, the expansion of human-robot collaboration will be readily accepted by the employees.” Digitalisation brings with it a whole series of changes, including when a producing company is selecting a site. It’s no longer the place with the least costly workforce that scores bonus points as a production location, but instead it’s the country with the best industrial robots and the most skilled employees.
“We should be concerning ourselves with how companies can generate new, interesting work.”
Jochen Haberland wants to continue promoting the model of life phase-oriented work organisation, in part to create more scope for lifelong learning: “Continued education, part-time degree courses, parental leave, sabbaticals – these days there not many resumes that don’t feature at least one of these. As a company, we can respond to this with new models that consider the varying intensities of work phases, and reward them more consistently.” Within a career, the necessary time could be set aside not only for time off, but also for the various development opportunities.
The desire for greater flexibility in daily work routines and a more personalised course for one’s professional life requires a corporate culture based on mutual trust. The Audi leadership principles reflect these values and focus on appreciation and respect. Much of what has been developed and proven successful over the years at the German sites in Ingolstadt and Neckarsulm is now being incorporated into international standards, such as in the building of the new Audi plant in Mexico. For instance, about 750 Mexicans spent several months in Ingolstadt to interact with their German colleagues and develop the knowledge necessary for the start-up.
Because responsible corporate conduct does not stop at national borders, Audi implements processes and organisational forms globally – while considering cultural differences at the international locations. The opportunity to acquire experience in another country is popular among employees – in 2005, a total of 1,406 expatriates worked at a foreign site.