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The Industry 4.0 demonstration system of Germany’s SmartFactory-KL partner consortium. Image by SmartFactory KL/A available at Wikimedia Commons under CC license.

09:58 am | April 20, 2020

Collaborative Futures

Like Made in China 2025, Germany’s Industry 4.0  is a vision of economic transformation. Unlike the Chinese plan, however, Industry 4.0 was never top-down, and it has prioritized both broad societal participation and cross-European cooperation over visions of national dominance.

By Angelina Horsinka

Industry 4.0, Germany’s national strategic initiative to develop digital manufacturing by increasing digitization of products, value chains and business models, began a decade ago as an idea explored by a diverse group of representatives from German business, academia, politics and professional associations. “4.0” was intended as a reference to a “fourth industrial revolution” – following steam power, mass production and automation through information technology and robotics.

The name and basic concept of Industry 4.0 was first publicly introduced in 2011 at the Hannover Messe, one of the world’s largest trade fairs. By 2012, the idea was being pursued by the German government through two departments, the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy and Federal Ministry of Education and Research, which formed a diverse Industry 4.0 Working Group. During the Hannover Messe in March 2013, the main theme was “integrated industry,” essentially a reference to Industry 4.0. Speaking at the event, Jochen Köckler, the chairman of Deutsche Messe, said: "In the future, machines, systems, workpieces and components will exchange data and information in real time. This will give a boost to efficiency, security and resource conservation in production and logistics."

In April 2013, shortly after the Hannover Messe, the Industry 4.0 Working Group released its final recommendations on the strategy. An industry-led Steering Committee was established for the purpose of coordinating and managing the "Industry 4.0 Platform," and various working groups were created for areas such as manufacturing, IT and automation. To monitor overall progress, a Secretariat was set up, comprising three German professional associations, BITKOM (the country’s digital association), VDMA (representing the mechanical engineering industry), and ZVEI (representing the electrical industry). The involvement of these associations brought roughly 6,000 German member companies into the “Industry 4.0” platform.

This broad representation of stakeholders in Germany society was a core feature of Industry 4.0 from inception to implementation – and it is one of the key factors that distinguishes the platform from China’s plan, “Made in China 2025.” As the European Chamber of Commerce in China noted in a report released in March 2017, the Chinese plan is very much a state-centered approach, focusing on such tools as subsidies, support for Chinese state-owned enterprises, market access restrictions for foreign businesses, and state-backed foreign acquisitions. “Instead of moving ahead with the progressive market-based reforms announced at the Third Plenum in 2013, state planners are unfortunately falling back on the old approach of top-down decision making,” European Chamber President Jörg Wuttke warned

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“Industry 4.0”  promotes the computerization of traditional industries. Image by Dick David available at Wikimedia Commons under CC license.

A German Platform?

On March 15, 2015, Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s economy minister, and Johanna Wanka, the federal minister for education and research, gave Industry 4.0 the green light, moving the platform into the implementation phase. One month later, on April 14, the federal ministers officially inaugurated Industry 4.0 at the Hannover Messe. 

In May 2015, Gabriel introduced a discussion paper outlining the digital transformation of the German economy and society. “Our goal is to establish Germany as the number one country in Europe in terms of digital growth,” he said, “and to play a leading role in the consistent, trust-worthy and secure digitization of economies, lives and workplaces.”

Despite the apparent emphasis on Germany, Industry 4.0 has in practice clearly been a cross-European and even international platform, a second key aspect that distinguishes it from “Made in China 2025.”

In October 2015, high-ranking politicians from Germany and France met in Paris to lay the foundation for collaboration between both country’s industry initiatives, “Industry 4.0” and the French Industry Alliance. The meeting was attended by German Chancellor Angela Merket and then French President Francois Hollande, as well as by Jean-Claude Juncker, then president of the European Commission. An action plan for future Franco-German cooperation in the field of digitization was published in April 2016, dealing with such areas as technology and test infrastructure, standardization, and changes in skill requirements and work organization. Since 2018, German cooperation with France has also involved Italy.

Despite the apparent emphasis on Germany, Industry 4.0 has in practice clearly been a cross-European and even international platform.


More and more European countries entered into agreement on Industry 4.0. In 2017, Germany and Austria agreed on cooperation in the areas of standards, supporting SMEs, testing centres, IT security and qualifications. In 2018, the queen and king of the Netherlands, Máxima and Willem-Alexander, visited Germany and signed the agreement of cooperation between the Dutch Smart Industry program and Industry 4.0.

Since its introduction, Industry 4.0 has steadily developed in the direction of greater international collaboration, while encouraging healthy competition. In April 2016, Matthias Machnig, state secretary at the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy, met with Japanese economic vice-minister Takayuki Ueda and signed an agreement to foster close cooperation between Germany’s Industry 4.0 and Japan’s Robot Revolution Initiative. Beyond bilateral or multilateral agreements, Industry 4.0 has also collaborated with the International Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), an open membership organization with more than 200 members across the world, founded by Intel, Cisco, IBM, AT&T and General Electric in March 2014. From the German perspective as a highly export-oriented economy, intensive cooperation with others is important “in order to pave the way for global standards.”

In March 2019, the Industry 4.0 platform presented Vision 2030, what it calleda holistic approach to the shaping of digital ecosystems.” Vision 2030 furthers the spirit of regional, international and multi-level cooperation, emphasizing that while the plan is “primarily addressed” to industry and commerce in Germany, it “explicitly highlights the importance of openness and a willingness to work together with partners in Europe and around the world.”

April 20, 2020
Angelina Horsinka

Angelina Horsinka is a graduate student in China Studies at the University of Heidelberg.