Made-to-measure – by assembly line

Written by on 24/08/2017 in brand eins with 0 Comments

How does industry work in the digital age, and what does that mean for the employees? We visit the cleaning technology firm Kärcher.


“Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants, so long as it is black.” Henry Ford’s comment sums up the problem of industrial mass production. It makes things efficiently and quickly – but they are always the same.

However, Kärcher’s B40 scrubber-drier is different. Made in Schwabia in south-west Germany, the B40, like its big sister, the B60, is about as big as a shopping trolley, though much bulkier. With a manually-controlled electric motor, it swabs floors and immediately vacuums them dry again. Customers can choose rollers or discs for the wiping process, decide how broad or narrow these should be, what sort of steering they want and whether to have automatic interior tank cleaning: in fact, customers can choose from roughly 40,000 different combinations. In the end, practically no two machines ordered are alike. The customer can even choose the colour – though most opt for anthracite and the classic Kärcher yellow.

“In the old days we used to have a catalogue with just a very few variations,” says Carsten Schlenker, factory manager at the firm’s main location in Winnenden, near Stuttgart. “An order picker would get the necessary parts ready in a cart and then the machine was assembled from them on the production line.” By “the old days”, he means before 2015. Since then industry 4.0 has arrived in Winnenden.

The German version of this article in brand eins magazine


Over the decades the Kärcher company premises have fused with the town: there are modern office buildings and a handsome auditorium. But some departments are based in former houses the firm acquired as it expanded.

Yet though a lot may look very traditional, production here is extremely modern. In cooperation with the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering in Stuttgart, Kärcher has developed a completely digitalised assembly line for its mobile cleaning juggernauts. That does not mean that robots have taken over. Assembly is still done by the employees, but they are assisted by computer technology. Instead of the “picker” going around selecting the necessary components, all the parts for all the options are ready to hand at the line. Indeed, far too many parts for a human to keep track of. This is done by the emerging product itself: it knows which variant it is destined to be and what parts are required from a radio chip on the assembly trolley linked to the ordering system.


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About the Author

About the Author: Christoph Koch ist Journalist (brand eins, GEO, NEON, Wired, GQ, SZ- und ZEIT-Magazin, Süddeutsche, etc.), Autor ("Ich bin dann mal offline" & "Digitale Balance" & "Was, wäre wenn ...?") sowie Moderator und Vortragsredner. Auf Twitter als @christophkoch unterwegs, bei Mastodon .


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