Don’t Think About Industry 4.0 Until You’re Lean

First, let me say that nothing that follows is intended to disparage Industry 4.0. Digital technology has the potential to change manufacturing for the better in many ways. 

That said, there has been a lot being written about Industry 4.0. Much of what’s been written is confusing. There aren’t any clear, widely agreed upon definitions as to just what Industry 4.0 is in the first place. One article I read stated that there are more than 100 different definitions of Industry 4.0 in the literature. 

This means that it’s difficult to discern just what Industry 4.0 is and what it is not. I’ve seen a wide array of examples of what Industry 4.0 is. I’ve come to conclude that the thermostat on my dining room wall is as good an example of Industry 4.0 as exists; without any intervention on my part, that thermostat senses the temperature in my house and turns the furnace on. When the ambient temperature gets up to a certain point, that same mechanism turns the furnace off. If anything qualifies as a “smart” system, this should. 

So, is this what Industry 4.0 is all about? Many of the reports I’ve read say as much. And that’s OK; helpful technology doesn’t have to be based on the latest and greatest digital advances. In fact, applications of simple technologies might provide as much or more benefit than those of more advanced technologies.

Let me provide another example of a “self regulating system” (a term I see often in the literature) that doesn’t involve any advanced technology at all. A client had a cell that assembled components for their product. The cell assembled about eight different versions of the components. All versions went to the assembly lines, where the final product was put together.

Prior to the company’s lean initiative, work orders from Production Scheduling told the cell what version to make, how many, and when. Quite simply, this approach didn’t work. For example, the assembly lines would be short of Version 1, while stacks of Versions 2 and 3 sat in inventory. Still, Production Scheduling would direct the cell to make more of Versions 2 and 3.

Then the company changed its approach. It bought some racks to put into the cell.  Sections of the racks were labeled so that containers of the different versions of the component went to specific sections of the rack, i.e., containers of Version 1 components always went to the same section and so on for all eight versions.

The cell was given these instructions: When you see a section is empty, make more of that version. When the section is full, quit making it. Period. The computer that fed the daily work orders from Production Planning was…turned off.

The new process was self regulating. It used no technology more advanced than shelves and labels. More importantly, it was effective in keeping the lines running while reducing work in process inventories. And it did so better than the legacy “computer-driven” system did.

Is this, then, an argument against Industry 4.0? Not at all. It is an argument for taking a close look at all your processes and engaging your employees in simplifying and improving those processes before you invest heavily in technology that might not pay off for years, if at all.

Years ago, I worked with a company that extruded PVC conduit. One plant was experiencing high scrap rates. A bit of analysis showed instances where a line ran eight hours of scrap before it was shut down. When a team looked into the problem further, to ask why the extruder wasn’t shut down immediately when scrap was being made, it found that the lead techs needed time to figure out what was wrong and then to make corrections. 

Let’s stop for a moment and consider what the Industry 4.0 solution might be. Sensoring the extruders so that material temperature, extruder speed, and other relevant variables were constantly monitored and sent to motor controls that changed machine parameters so that perfect pipe was always produced was a possibility. Installing controls that stopped the equipment when scrap was being produced was another possibility. 

The plant operators and leads came up with a less expensive, less complex solution: A lead would work on an extruder that was producing scrap for no more than two hours. If he or she hadn’t solved the problem within two hours, the extruder was shut down for maintenance to do a complete inspection and review. Period. Scrap at the plant dropped significantly because there were no more “eight-hour scrap runs”. 

Most of the waste, delays, scrap, and errors that occur in your operations aren’t due to lack of appropriate technology. They are due to poorly designed systems and bad practices. Your supervisors and operators are far more aware of the both the sources and consequences of problems in the processes in which they’re embedded than are a whole posse of hardware and software experts.  Teach your associates the fundamental principles of lean manufacturing, show them some examples of it, and turn them loose. Once you’ve done that, your applications of Industry 4.0 will be all the more effective.

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