There’s been no shortage of discussion over the past year or so about how well Germany’s industrial sector weathered and emerged so well-positioned from the most recent recession. Many industry and political observers have pointed to Germany’s unflagging support of its industrial base as a model for the rest of the Western world.
Certainly there is any number of positions to be taken on the issue. And it’s not as if Germany did not incur any pain as it made some tough decisions and transitioned to the new approaches necessary to maintain its standing as one of the world’s top manufacturing powerhouses.
Just looking at the country’s unemployment figures alone indicate that its system is either nowhere near as preferable as ours, or that our striving in the U.S. to recapture our past 5% unemployment rate is not as sustainable as we might prefer to think. For example, while the U.S. rarely edged above a 6% unemployment rate from spring of 1994 until late summer 2008, Germany dealt with an unemployment rate nearly double of that in the U.S. From 2000 until 2006, the German unemployment rate hovered around 10% until dropping to around 7 percent in 2007.
Some observers have said that Germany’s high rates of unemployment until recently were a symptom of the restructuring underway in Germany at the time while the country refocused its efforts around redesigning and rebuilding its industrial base for the future. Whether or not that’s the true, what is nonetheless captivating is one of Germany’s shining lights of its new manufacturing vision — the VW Phaeton manufacturing facility in Dresden.
Known as the “transparent factory,” the VW Phaeton facility is part assembly plant and part museum that features:
Canadian maple floors powered by conveyors on the production floor;
A system of receiving supplies via tram cars that run on the same tracks as Dresden’s local commuter trams;
Power delivered to tools used to assemble the cars via induction through the maple production floors;
Intelligent tools to track the production process and guide the assembly team members; and
A warehouse designed to showcase its products and add to the beauty of the facility’s design.
Of course, this approach is not suitable, possible or even desirable for all manufacturing facilities. But you have to admit, the design aspects — from the functional to the economic — are enviable in many aspects. And you can’t argue that, if more manufacturing-related work was this appealing, attracting more of the most competent people into the workforce would not be nearly as difficult as it is now.
To get a more in-depth look at this facility, check out this video from the Discovery Channel show Megaworld when it visited VW’s Dresden Phaeton facility.
Once you’ve checked it out, I would love to hear what you think of the concept. Is this a glimpse of the future for manufacturing and the next big challenge for systems designers on a grand scale, or is it the white elephant of the western manufacturing concept?