Can the German craft sector survive—and even thrive—in the face of automation?

How technology and a growing interest in traditional trades like baking and distilleries might rescue heritage pursuits from obscurity.

Berlin — Handmade soap isn’t exactly a billion-dollar business. But that didn’t keep former German business consultant Jan Heipcke from buying a majority stake in Klar Seifen, a struggling, family-owned soap company founded in 1840. A century ago, the firm employed about 100 people. Today, it has 10.

But Heipcke bought the company in 2010, when he was 29 years old, because he saw a chance to breathe life into a business that hadn’t kept up with technological change. “It got stuck 30 years ago in the market,” he says. Now, he says, “digitization is just playing in our favor.”

Heipcke leveraged the company’s history to tap into a renewed interest globally for artisanal goods. He created a digital storefront and started using social media to find customers around the world willing to pay a premium for soap made from ingredients grown near Klar’s Heidelberg headquarters. “When people are buying soap for $20, they’re not just buying soap, they’re buying a gift, or buying themselves something good. If they just wanted to clean their hands, then they would buy soap for 39 cents at the supermarket,” Heipcke says.

Using the power and reach of the web to revive and reinvent legacy businesses isn’t exactly revolutionary. But it’s one example of how technology could help Germany save its traditional crafts professions from fading into obscurity amid growing reliance on automation.

Throughout Germany, from the capital to the countryside, craftwork remains a respectable and valued way to make a living. The tradition is preserved in common family names such as Becker (baker) and Schumacher (shoemaker). It’s also embedded in the German economy through a crafts law that dates to the 1930s and is meant to control the quality of crafts and services, and to protect decent-paying, middle-class jobs by keeping a high barrier to entry.

But the pool of people who choose to work with their hands — as soap makers, carpenters, or plumbers — is shrinking in Germany. In 2015, about 12 percent of the workforce here, or 5.4 million people, worked in crafts ranging from traditional artisanal work to more technical industrial jobs such as car mechatronics, a combination of mechanical engineering and electronics. Though their proportion has been stable for several years, it’s down from 5.8 million craft workers in 2003.

In 2004, the German government sought to open the sector to more people by easing restrictions for 53 crafts occupations, including porcelain painting and silk screening. Nevertheless, the number of workers continues to drop. The threat of losing these traditional roles — and the many middle-class jobs they represent — is not just a philosophical quandary anymore in Germany. It has left many here questioning whether the crafts sector will continue shrinking in the face of increasing automation.

Today, many traditional jobs such as soap making and baking are handled mostly by machines. And increasingly, so is auto making, Germany’s largest industry. The country used more robots to make cars in 2015 than most other countries (1,147 robots per 100,000 workers), according to the latest data from the International Federation of Robotics.

While computing brainpower may never replace the creativity of craftspeople, it can certainly augment it, says Tobias Maier, a researcher at the Bundesinstitut für Berufsbildung (BIBB), a vocational training and education research organization in Bonn. For instance, the German sneaker giant Adidas is starting to use 3-D printing and other automated technologies to get new sneaker styles to stores more quickly. In the future, these technologies could help the company customize fit and styles, too. And as the cost of these innovations continues to decline, crafts people will be able to use the same methods in their workshops.

Demand for customization and small-batch production is growing. Craft beer, for instance, is expected to take increasingly more market share from established companies. Upstart artisanal brands such as Berlin’s BRLO brewery and gin distillery Monkey 47, located in the Black Forest of southwest Germany, are attracting worldwide attention.

Baking apprentice Johannes Jungnickel working at Beumer & Lultum. Photo by Lonnie Shekhtman

And in many of these new companies, you’ll find people who are not just dedicated to their own pursuits, but hopeful about keeping the tradition of craft alive in Germany. You’ll find people like Johannes Jungnickel, an apprentice baker at Beumer & Lutum, an organic bakery chain in Berlin. On a steamy summer night recently, he worked quickly, hunched over a wooden table, cheeks flushed from the heat. Quiet and focused, Jungnickel lassoed clumps of dough into pretzels.

It’s an unusual career choice for a 26-year-old with a bachelor’s degree in music from a conservatory in Amsterdam. Most people in Germany start baking apprenticeships after the eighth or 10th grade, earning about $530 a month in their first year, while living with their parents and going to vocational school.

“For me, it came out of a personal interest,” Jungnickel says. He believes that quality products will always stand out from the flood of mass-produced goods. There’s also a practical consideration, says Jungnickel. “If the whole Western world falls apart, I can still bake bread!”

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