I have been an enthusiast of Lean since when I heard for the first time the term JIT (Just-In-Time) when I was at the university in the late 1990s . The Toyota Way has been shaping the automotive manufacturing landscape, and beyond, for almost 50 years. And yet it’s still sound and alive. But a new buzzword is nowadays emerging, and this time it’s not coming from the distant Far East but from the technological heart of old Europe: I’m referring to Germany and I’m referring to Industrie 4.0, aka Industry 4.0. Nevertheless, again the new fashion appears to many equally exotic and ungraspable, reminding of the initial difficulties of a western audience to comprehend the Japanese theories when they started to spread worldwide in the early 1980s.
But today we are living in a connected world, and surely the speed with which all of us will become very familiar with the new trend will be unmatchable with what happened only 20 or 30 years ago. It’s not distant the time that we will be reading plenty of bestsellers about the new Industrial Revolution, and I’m looking forward to it. And it comes as no surprise that one of the very first books on this topic is a German Bachelor Thesis written in Shanghai. The author is Anton Frison and the title is «Impact of Industry 4.0 on Lean Methods and the Business of German and Chinese Manufacturer in China». I strongly suggest everybody to download it today on your Kindle device or app: Http://amzn.com/B017T5XL0O
I fully support the position of the book as I also strongly believe that there will be important synergies between Lean and Industry 4.0. Lean is basically a set of tools and practices aiming to reduce complexity, pushing down the responsibility, designing fail-safe processes, profiting of self-governed pull systems. It’s both intuitive and experienced in day-to-day practice that if actions are self-initiated (Kanban), if non-conforming products are mostly avoided (Poka-Yoke) and if workers manage directly all basic deviations (Sprint Meetings), efficiency goes up and costs go down.
Toyota Way is rooted in post-second world war Japan. At that time technology was not yet advanced enough to assure an extensive error-proof application to the current manufacturing processes. Therefore Taiichi Ohno and Eiji Toyoda had to look for practical and affordable solutions to design their system.
Today things have evolved dramatically. Technology is everywhere and reached an unprecedented level of reliability. New applications are on the horizon such as 3D printing for prototyping and spare parts, digitalisation for cascading updates of all workshop documentation, lightweight robots promising to operate with the worker in their immediate environment without the need of safety areas, self-routing and self-conscious handling units providing transparent data about production progress, machine integrated and process interconnected 3D measurements, smart glasses for augmented reality and IR/US tracked gloves for real-time detection of workers’ movement, etc.
When complexity cannot be avoided or reduced and when there are indeed opportunities to embrace it, a paradigm shift is needed and new models must be developed. Furthermore the race to Industry 4.0 is a race between the major manufacturing countries to gain a competitive advantage to be spent in the coming decades.
«Industry 4.0 is the cost-intensive opportunity to cope with complexity» (Anton Frison)
Dealing with our personal computers, we all experienced in a not-so-distant past the «blue screens of death» and threatening viruses . Where are them now? Who remember to «defrag» his hard disk any more? Where are the plethora of options and settings with which we were familiar in the early versions of Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office? Where is the filesystem of my iPhone? How is possible that I can run the very same app both on my smartphone and my tablet?
What we have experienced in the last twenty years with our personal production tools is showing two interrelated trends:
- technology is getting as expected better and better;
- complexity cannot be disappeared, but surely has been more and more hidden from the user.
Something parallel is happening now on the shop floor of our companies. With technology becoming everyday more reliable, it will be massively adopted to enhance our production processes. And the good news are that most of the complex stuff will be completely masked to the manager and to the worker, creating a huge gap between the underlying complexity and the perceived one. From Plug & Play to Plug & Produce.