Industry 4.0 has become a new buzzword within Industry over recent years, but what exactly is it? And what factors have brought this ‘new era’ about?

There are a number of driving factors…

  • Changing Customer and Market demands for more and more individual products, exactly when they want it. No more Ford Model-T mind set of “any colour you want, as long as it’s black”.
  • The demand cannot be satisfied by traditional methods only, e.g. adding machines or shifts. Indeed capex investment is expected to generate less than half of the value creation expected to come through Industry 4.0
  • The Technology required is available today to start the journey – it is often referred to as ‘Disruptive Technology’, and it is the application of this technology which is expected to generate the greater proportion of value through Industry 4.0.

Disruptive Technology can be categorised under a number of headings;

  • Data, Computational Power and Connectivity
    • Cloud Computing
    • The Industrial Internet
    • Cyber Security
  • Analytics and Intelligence
    • Big Data and Analytics
    • Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
    • Horizontal and Vertical System Integration
    • Machine sensors and Predictive Maintenance.
  • Human/Machine Interaction
    • Augmented Reality
    • Touch screen interfaces
    • Voice and Movement recognition
  • Digital to Physical conversion
    • Advanced Robotics
    • 3D Printing

Do not doubt the ability of machines to learn – we have watched in awe at the success of AI programs like Google subsidiary DeepMind’s AlphaZero. Within two hours of taking up chess AlphaZero was beating human players; after four it was beating the best chess computer in the world; in nine it was the best chess player the world has ever seen.

So where does this fit, if at all, with Lean Manufacturing as a business strategy?

Well, Technology is NOT the solution, but it will be a vital part of the solution. The big picture is to achieve the speed and flexibility required to service an ever more demanding marketplace. Using technology can increase the value of digital information along the entire product lifecycle – Plan, Source, Make, Deliver and Return. The ‘digital thread’ will enhance visibility, reduce data loss and ultimately increase speed of flow through a fully integrated Supply Chain.

Disruptive technologies can augment Lean activities already being deployed to improve this flow.

Here are some examples;

Long Machine Changeovers;

Product changeovers can be time-consuming, yet they are necessary for manufacturers to switch a production line from one product to another. By utilising digital automation tools such as sensors and software, conventional Lean activities such as SMED can be enhanced. Use of RFID tags on materials can allow machines to identify the next product arriving in station, and automatically reset machine parameters without the need for operator intervention.

Breakdown Losses

With the increase in today’s’ computing power, the vast amount of data that can be recorded by relatively inexpensive machine sensors can be analysed. Using advanced algorithms and machine learning techniques the potential for breakdowns can be identified before they occur. This form of predictive maintenance allows operators to ‘see’ when components are wearing out and perform preventative maintenance at the optimal time, reducing spares costs as well as expensive downtime.

Poor Quality

Lean techniques such as self-inspection, poke yoke and jidoka have long been used to help prevent and detect errors. Technology such as Vision Systems can augment this by removing the human error element of visual inspection, whilst the data it provides can be analysed in real-time so that operators can be confident the process is constantly meeting the required quality standards. Faster feedback of the data collected through this technology, along with correlation models, helps to reduce the lead-time for the root cause analysis of errors.

Thus traditional Lean can be augmented by utilising the benefits of Disruptive Technology. It even has a name, coined by Boston Consulting Group  – ‘Lean Industry 4.0’.

As the demand for more and more individual products at ever shorter lead-times grows, established Lean principles based on mass production will be augmented with new tools that enhance flexibility – e.g. Quick Response Manufacturing, Concurrent Engineering, Scrum and Agile.