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Digital transformation: How everything started


”You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” The phenomenon of digital transformation is characterized by such complexity that one can hardly understand its essence simply by looking at the present.

Transformation as such is not an invention of the 20th century. It has been an existential necessity since time immemorial. Transformation, development or change are all just concepts for basic human characteristics: Adaptation, learning, development, improvement. Otherwise we would probably still be living in caves and keeping ourselves warm around the campfire. Instead, there is a smartphone on the table in front of me, with which I can not only make phone calls but also measure my heart rate, do my banking, book a flight, chat with a colleague in Cape Town in real time and at the same time look at cat pictures. The fact that this smartphone, just as large as a DIN A6 sheet, surpasses the processing power of two Apollo moon rockets is more than just a curious milestone in the history of science, it is an expression of a development that has always been rapid, but whose speed seems to increase exponentially.

Steve Jobs, one of the great innovators of our time, emphasizes in the quote mentioned above that connections can only be viewed retrospectively.Let’s take a quick look at the milestones of an (industrial) history that begins much earlier than expected.

Industry 1.0

It is obvious that man has always strived to make work as easy as possible. This is indicated by numerous finds of tools that have been further developed and improved over time. But the question arises: How long do we have to go back in history until we come across an event that fundamentally revolutionized our way of working and living?

Where does the transformation begin?

This first milestone is not just the railway, but the invention of the first mechanical loom. From 1784 the Englishman Edmund Cartwright developed a manually operated weaving machine. As early as 1786, the moving parts of the loom were operated by a mechanical drive. A further development enabled operation with steam. This machine became famous as the power loom.

The invention of the loom made it possible to mechanize work: Before, a whole series of steps had to be carried out within the manufacturing process in order to get from the initial product to the finished product, but now as a machine operator you became a part of the machine. Adapted to the speed of the machine, the task was now to ensure smooth running.

The mass use of the machines heralded industrialization. The loom and the steam engine are considered to be the origins of the industrial revolution. Now, a large quantity of qualitatively equivalent products could be produced cost-effectively. As a result, more and more people were replaced by machines: The consequences were dramatic unemployment and social unrest.

Finally the railroad: Transformation of mobility

The maiden voyage of the first steam locomotive in history took place on February 13,1804. It meant a revolution in the transport system, opened up undreamed-of mobility to the people and set another milestone in industrialization.

Industry 2.0

In general, the next milestone in industrial history is associated with the invention of the assembly line of the American car maker Henry Ford. Only Henry Ford was the best known, but neither the inventor nor the only one with the idea. Already in the 15th century Venice, ships were built with such a production process. As early as 1901, the cars were partially mounted on wooden frames for the production of the Oldsmobile in the USA and then pulled to the next station. The first mechanical conveyor belt in Europe was installed at the Bahlsen biscuit factory in Hanover in 1905.

Like on a conveyor belt: Transformation of work

However, history always creates its own heroes and so the name Henry Ford was inseparably connected with the invention of the assembly line. The assembly line, which Ford used for the first time in 1913 for the production of the legendary Ford Model T (also known as ”Tin Lizzie”), became a synonym for an entire era of industrialization. Less well known is that his ”assembly line” was nothing more than an adaptation of the so-called ”disassembly line”, which was invented in Cincinnati in 1862. While something was assembled at the ”assembly line”, the ”disassembly line” was used for disassembly: Cattle and pigs were cut up in a continuous production line and the meat obtained was packed into canned products.

Henry Ford adopted this production principle for the automotive industry: The handover of a workpiece from one production point within the production chain to the next, whereby the same action is always carried out at one production point. Even with the first assembly line, which was still manually operated at that time, the assembly time was reduced from 12 hours to 5 hours. With the introduction of the fully automatic belt a few years later, the production time was reduced again to 1.5 hours.

The use of the conveyor belt marks the beginning of industrial mass production as a shining milestone. In the beginning it was only very simple work steps, but in the following years more and more parts of the production process up to the fully automated production line were taken from the machine workers.

Modern times

But the assembly not only brought advantages, but also disadvantages: For the workers at the assembly line, this meant that the whole shift was always moving in the same way over and over again. Ford himself described the basic idea as ”reducing the demands on the worker’s thinking and reducing his movements to a minimum”. According to the idea, this increases productivity and the number of units. In his film ” Modern Times”, Charlie Chaplin congenially caricatured what reality looked like back then.

Incidentally, assembly line production in its original form is still used today almost unchanged in the textile industry in the developing countries of Asia, unfortunately with the same advantages and disadvantages.

The history of digital transformation continues!

Have you become curious? Would you like to know which turbocharger has been used in the development from industry 3.0 to industry 4.0 until today? Then read Part 2 here!

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