Manufacturers have used lean principles and tools for many years to improve productivity and reduce operational inefficiency, but increasingly valuable synergies can be achieved by taking an integrated approach to combining lean thinking and Industry 4.0. Some organisations now refer to this as lean Industry 4.0.

However, amid the buzz and profuse amounts of jargon that often precedes and follows an era of significant change, our job as lean management experts and operational excellence specialists is always to provide a pragmatic approach. We focus on straightforward counsel and clarity. Therefore, when it comes to heralding the dawn of Industry 4.0, our lean response is somewhat ‘business as usual’.

For us, whether we are talking about the bygone era of power and steam, electronic assembly lines, or computer automation and cyber-physical systems; lean management and the fundamental principles that support its practice are timeless.

People first

We believe the ultimate success of an organisation lies in the ability to develop its people through dedicated employee engagement. Above all, the aim should be to identify and embed the right practices, behaviours and tools (80:20 behaviour/tools). The output should lead to integrated processes and systems which empower and enable the organisation’s single-minded vision.

Critically, if you focus on ‘people, process and systems’ in that order, Industry 4.0 can be viewed as the digital era’s enablement of lean. Naturally, it will take on new adaptations, but importantly the guiding principles of Lean will remain unaltered.

Lean smart factory

For many UK manufacturers, the ‘Smart Factory’ is still part concept, part reality. Some will struggle to realise a fully automated manufacturing plant with digitally connected machinery, but it is easy to see how quickly the technology paradigms will shift.

A recent report from The World Economic Forum identified the four key drivers it believed are responsible for accelerating industry change. It cited high-speed mobile internet, artificial intelligence, big data analytics and cloud technology as the primary areas to shape global business moving forward.

Clearly, the Smart Factory, and the surge of new and emerging technology, is set to dominate the manufacturing industry over the next few years. We cannot afford to ignore the considerable impact on the current workforce and the level of industry disruption; not to mention the sophistication and speed of advancement.

Faster, leaner, better

The 5G high-speed mobile enablement of ‘always-on’ connectivity will allow industrial automation systems to operate at record speeds, increasing the rate of real-time data with the enhanced ability to identify issues and implement faster solutions. With this comes the enhanced capability to interrogate and manipulate data more meaningfully.

However, a ‘people-first’ strategy remains critical to ensure workforce process is aligned. Without it there is a danger that organisations could fall in to the trap of systemising the waste they have worked hard to reduce. If implemented correctly, high speed mobile enablement will have profound benefits in driving intelligence-based outcomes. With a greater focus on end-to-end solutions, we see this as a major driver for lean manufacturing and achieving operational excellence.

Artificial intelligence

AI is pushing the boundaries of Lean to the next level through machine learning. The use of statistics to enable machines to improve with experience is further complemented by deep learning, which makes neural networks that can look for trends and self-learn. The pace of advancement in this area is rapidly reshaping the traditional rules of engagement for the workforce. AI offers the best example of technology accelerating the Lean process.

The sophistication of AI through machine and deep learning will design-in and automate processes that define the right lean actions, without the need for humans. Production workers can transfer their skills into other value-adding activities within the plant and organisation. However, where job creation is growing to support AI, the issue of skills shortage also presents itself.

The World Economic Forum forecasts that by 2022, robotics and artificial intelligence could create over 130 million jobs. This is almost double the figure they are set to displace.

There is no doubt that AI is enabling an upskilled workforce to emerge and the case for ‘people first’ becomes ever more important. Organisations will need to ensure that AI is not just a top-down decision to improve productivity. Without capturing the critical continuous improvement mindset from the shop-floor, the adoption of AI may be less effective.

Clearly, Industry 4.0 will allow manufacturers to reap the benefits of a greater level of operational performance and lean management through the use of connected systems that work together along a value chain, from plant level and across the supply chain.

Back to the future of lean

The implementation of lean management and Industry 4.0 is clearly the most effective way for manufacturers to reach the next level of operational efficiency and excellence. We see the smart factory and the latest automation advancements providing the impetus and platform for a new generation of cutting-edge lean practice to evolve.

Industry 4.0 is shining a light on lean manufacturing, whilst raising the benchmark and enhancing the opportunity for greater sophistication, analysis and improvement, not only at a plant level, but across the supply-chain. With technology as the fuel, and a continued focus on people, systems and process - the future of lean manufacturing is a bright one.