The first two industrial revolutions were characterized by the replacement of human and animal labour with industrial machines, powered by steam, first, and by electricity next. In the 70s’ the development of information technology and operational research gave birth to the third industrial revolution: the introduction of CNC machines, Information Systems, Computer Aided Engineering, Robots, Mechatronics, Automated Guided Vehicles, etc., have transformed the way in which production is planned, controlled and automated.
Now we are in the fourth industrial revolution (i.e., Industry 4.0), a digital era in which the use of ICT technologies will make a leap, proceeding from the “workplace digitalisation” to the “intelligent factory”. Cloud computing, internet of things, real-time sense-and-response technologies, cloud-based services, big data analytics, robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and so on, are foreseen to revolutionize how we make things and deliver services. In manufacturing the central idea is to merge the digital and the physical word to create a futuristic self-diagnosing and self-configuring shop-floor (i.e., a cyber-physical production system), where materials and machines communicate with each other in real time to decide, autonomously, how to optimize the productive cycle. Also, being constantly connected (through the cloud) with the global network, the intelligent shop-floor will become extremely flexible and resilient, as it will be able to automatically respond to any change in the demand pattern.
If these forecasts will eventually come true, is Lean manufacturing doomed to a rapid end?
Will developments in technology leave Lean irrelevant?
These questions are reasonable and fascinating as Lean has emerged as a powerful solution to face the complexity of highly productive and performing systems, typical of the manufacturing paradigm of the third industrial revolution.
So, with the advent of cyber physical systems and of auto-optimizing and self-reconfigurable shop floors, one could argue that there is no more space for Lean.
Quite the opposite, our belief is that Lean will not fade with Industry 4.0 and that, conversely, the fourth industrial revolution will enable the true lean enterprise. Proven lean principles such as reducing waste and non-value added activities (e.g. machine breakdowns, excessive inventories, over-production, etc.) will remain fundamental but, certainly, the lean toolkit will have to be modified. Assumedly, there will be less physical kanban cards flowing in the flow-shop and there will be less billboards hanging on the walls of future smart factories. These paper and pencil techniques will be replaced thanks to the potentialities (in terms of connectivity and data gathering and analysis) offered by frontier ICT technologies that will give a new edge to established lean methods. New sensors, more data, and advanced analytics can boost the ability to solve problems and identify sophisticated improvement measures, resulting in smarter solutions and new productivity gains. A much richer understanding of the customer demand and the immediate sharing of the demand data, will enable a radically improved form of instant just-in-time production of customized products, and a drastic reduce of inventories throughout the supply chain. In a single word, Industry 4.0 can be understood as digitally enabled lean, as smart factories will produce faster with less waste.
A synthesis of potential synergies between Lean and Industry 4.0 is shown in the following table.
The achievement of a waste free smart factory, enhanced by artificial intelligence and digitally enabled lean is the main goal of research group. Specifically, the focus will be on the generation of a new Lean oriented approach, for operations excellence in ATO and ETO SMEs, enabled by an integrated set of Industry 4.0 ICT technologies. In doing so, we will certainly leverage on the following technologies: