June 19, 2017      

German automation is not only a reflection of the country’s industrial strength, but also its ability to remain a technology and business leader.

In my previous articles, we examined German regulations and how collaborative robots and testing are opening up new applications.

This third part looks at how German robotics is leading to a new kind of “soft power” for Europe’s largest economy. As I first described in my book, Next Geopolitics: The Future of World Affairs (Technology), countries are using robotics to informally grow their influence.

For example, as the Fukushima crisis worsened in Japan in 2011, Chancellor Angela Merkel offered Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the use of German robots to help in the cleanup.

Only a few countries have focused on developing and using robotic soft power, and Germany is one of them. Beyond German companies adopting robotics and artificial intelligence for profit, how is German automation helping the country’s global standing?

German automation conference extends industrial influence

Although the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas draws a lot of robotics attention because of its flashy consumer concepts, Hannover Messe is still one of the world’s most important conferences for industrial automation.

German automation is a major focus at Hannover Messe.

Merkel has used the conference to showcase German innovations. In 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened the conference, and then-U.S. President Barack Obama was invited to do the same last year. Can Hannover Messe, which has increasingly focused on robotics, be a gateway for people to learn about robotics, just as CES serves as a gateway for new gadgets and electronics?

If so, it would give Germany incredible power in shaping how people view and use technology.

Industry 4.0 and Germany

The phrase Industry 4.0 has been used by institutions such as the World Economic Forum (WEF) and European Parliament, consulting giants like McKinsey and Deloitte, and a host of other organizations. But regardless of who uses it, it is always connected to a single nation: Germany.

Industry 4.0 has become synonymous with Germany, which is working to define how robotics will be used around the world in the next era of industrialization.

Developing countries have looked to the U.K. to understand the Industrial Revolution, and U.S. companies led the information technology revolution. Germany is among the leaders for the next transformation.

This places a huge onus on Germany, but it also gives Germany global exposure. As more nations seek to develop their own robotics roadmaps, they will naturally learn about and adopt Industry 4.0. And without realizing it, they will be opening themselves up to Germany’s robotics approach and economic priorities.

Robots compete in sports and business

Robots in sports may not receive a lot of business attention, but Germany is a leader in this area. From soccer (or football to anyone outside the U.S.) to table tennis, robots are developing. This similar to how U.S. and Soviet space programs demonstrated technological and economic prowess during the Cold War.

German automation is part of extending soft power such as in robotic sports.

Since 2006, German researchers have been developing artificial intelligence with the goal of having robots take on and beat a human soccer team by 2050. These robots would need to operate autonomously but be able to communicate with other players in the same way humans do.

Last year, Germany won the RoboCup tournament. German automation is key to helping such teams win in soccer, basketball, and swimming competitions.

Today, soccer teams like Real Madrid and FC Barcelona serve as soft power icons for Spain. Tomorrow, will robot teams from Germany do the same thing?

Made in Germany

When Adidas said it would bring back manufacturing to Germany, the announcement was met with immediate fanfare and skepticism. On one hand, one of the world’s largest multinationals would be manufacturing goods in its homeland again.

On the other hand, the tens of thousands of workers employed by Adidas in the developing world could lose their jobs.

While there is no easy solution, Adidas’ decision to use German automation does allow for its products to be labeled as “Made in Germany.” The same way “Made in China” is an indirect mark of Chinese influence on many of the products we purchase, “Made in Germany” could someday extend from shoes to headphones and many other robot-made consumer goods.

However, robots won’t benefit only German firms — companies around the world are adopting robotics and AI. “Made in Germany” will be joined by “Made in Britain,” “Made in the U.S.,” “Made in India,” and much more. Which label will become synonymous with quality or popularity?

More on International Robotics Adoption:

The future and German automation

Thanks to robotics in the broad sense, the world of 2025 could be very different from today. Self-driving cars and drone deliveries could be the norm, and AI could be in the palm of your hand. In this brave new world, which nations will be the dominant robotics powers?

Most likely, it will be those that are thinking about the business and end-user needs that robotics can help satisfy, as well as the opportunities inherent in the challenges of adoption.

Germany is one of these countries. It is leading the way with new policy frameworks, trends such as frugal robotics, and avenues of soft power. And German automation could be just getting started.

As robotics further defines Germany’s image in the 21st century, so too will robotics define the country’s choices on the world stage. And that means, as Germany brings robotics to its business, government, and society, it will also share it with the world.