Applying Lean tactics in the Factory of the Future

The Factory of the Future can maximize the value and performance of every machine and production unit.

By Thomas Brown and Rodney Rusk December 16, 2019

Today’s manufacturing plants are undergoing a major evolution/revolution as Industry 4.0 technology is rapidly being adopted across many industry segments. This technology will form the foundation for a next-generation vision of manufacturing: the Factory of The Future. The Factory of the Future is an intelligent, flexible and highly agile production environment that equips plant operations and management with the real-time, in-depth information they need to maximize the value and performance of every machine and production unit.

Although the Factory of the Future may sound like a lofty concept, the groundwork for implementing this vision has actually been in place for some time. One crucial foundation in the journey toward the Factory of the Future is the concept and practice of Lean manufacturing. Developed decades ago as a method to improve productivity, Lean manufacturing emphasizes eliminating waste, implementing continuous improvement processes (CIP) and improving the flow of material, people and information — both within individual production lines and across manufacturing enterprises.

I4.0 technology is being engineered to achieve similar and essentially parallel goals: improving communications, capturing real-time and historic manufacturing data in an automated fashion, and applying intelligent technology to improve productivity, throughput and quality while reducing or eliminating wasted time, energy and resources.

Manufacturers and plant operators have begun to appreciate the impact that i4.0 technology offers their businesses. However, the best way to maximize the potential this technology offers is by also investing in and strengthening the application of lean principles and lean thinking to the ways they address waste and error in their operations — otherwise, they risk wasting time and valuable resources on technology that will not really help them realize their own Factory of the Future.

Value and impact of Lean

Lean manufacturing has proven to be a powerful, fundamental set of principles and processes for helping manufacturers become more productive, agile and able to deliver the highest quality goods while controlling costs and staying competitive.

Lean manufacturing provides a systematic way to identify waste and remove it continually. At its most elemental level, Lean manufacturing is “pull” production, driven by customer or marketplace demand. Lean production optimizes all of an enterprise’s flow in response to that demand: material flow, people flow and information flow.

Organizations that are successful at applying Lean have invested time and resources in understanding how materials and information flow through their manufacturing processes. They focus on locating where in their workflows they may be experiencing one or more of the seven types of waste typically identified by Lean practitioners:

  • Overproduction
  • Waiting
  • Defects and errors
  • Excess motion and movement
  • Excess inventory
  • Inefficient processes
  • Excess transportation

Lean meets Factory of the Future

It takes information to find and root out the sources of waste — and in the Factory of the Future, i4.0 technology significantly increases and enriches the density of information about manufacturing systems. In the Factory of the Future, everything can be connected, from the individual machine components with embedded sensors and intelligence up through machine-level and plant-level communications architectures to a cloud-based solution.

Sophisticated software collects, transfers and processes data in ways that provide both production transparency and actionable answers to questions about production bottlenecks, inefficient workflows and equipment in need of preventive maintenance.

Industry 4.0 technology like this is making it possible for manufacturers to access vital information about their workflows in a more usable, real-time, trackable fashion. For example, real-time data on the condition of motors or indications that bearings are wearing out can be acted on much faster to prevent unscheduled downtime or damage to machines.

Along with real-time, actionable data, historical and trending data from a much wider range of inputs can be gathered and analyzed. This data can be gathered automatically and compiled according to Lean principles in order to have a deeper and more cohesive picture of the performance of production systems which can help identify areas where continuous improvement processes need to be implemented.

Freeing personnel for value-added work

Another key benefit this technology offers is the ability to free up people who are normally tasked with monitoring and compiling Lean-related data and reporting it throughout the plant. In many plants with mature Lean practices, personnel must complete reports and post them to Kanban boards as their major task so that production teams can review data and make production decisions.

There are now advanced communications systems being offered that automate much of this work, much more accurately and faster. These interactive communications platforms process and visualize production data in real time, and can network with IT applications, such as production planning, quality data management and e-mailing throughout plants, to provide information as the basis for decisions and process improvements.

With these tools, it can be possible to free data-gatherers and report-makers to complete other jobs, such as implementing the actual continuous improvement processes — improving efficiencies versus just reporting what’s happening.

Lean and i4.0 go hand in hand

One of the major challenges many companies are facing in the journey toward the Factory of the Future is intelligently managing the mountains of data these systems can offer. Companies that seek to upgrade their production systems, incorporating intelligence and sensors into multiple process points and connecting all these machines, will discover that they have no way of knowing what functions or process points they need to measure in the first place to make full use of their technology investment.

Fully programmable tightening tools can adjust torque and rotation settings automatically according to the part being assembled, while tracking that data to ensure every fastener is tightened correctly. Courtesy: Bosch Rexroth[/caption]

Although it seems like these tools set manufacturers up to be smothered by a mountain of data, by being disciplined in the use of lean processes it is possible to make sure these systems are capturing the right data and helping plant operators find the root cause of downtimes and other sources of waste or poor quality. Ultimately, it may also be possible to get useful data on the right kind of i4.0 technology investment to eliminate wasted time — assuming that technology is actually the source of the issue.

Technology enhances Lean in manual production processes

One manufacturing area that has been significantly transformed by Lean is manual assembly and production systems. Lean processes have helped address many of the seven types of waste that at one time hindered manual production, including issues like waiting, defects and errors, and excess motion, movement and inventory.

This is an area where Lean principles and Factory of the Future technology are combining to make manual and hybrid (combined manual and automated) workcells reach new levels of efficiency and flexibility. Delivery of workpieces and components to workcells can be more efficiently automated, driven by flexible conveyor systems that utilize bar code readers or RFID tags to keep a steady, intelligently staged flow of materials to workstations just as they are needed, and oriented in the right direction for maximum ergonomic efficiency.

By implementing smart workstations in a manual assembly area, and incorporating interactive digital assembly guides and vision systems, some further advances in error reduction can potentially be realized. Worker-assist systems can be programmed to present information in the worker’s language of choice and automatically reconfigure to match the part being built.

The use of programmable tightening tools that document the amount of torque applied for each bolt tightened, and can automatically reconfigure torque and rotation setting based on the device being assembled (and log that data) can also reduce the potential for error and rework.

These tools can minimize downtime and wasted effort by reducing the amount of training or supervisor support/oversight with new personnel. They are also powerful tools for improving the final quality of every product being assembled. Newer systems are smart enough to assist and track each step of the assembly process, including notifying workers when they are about to make an error.

Smart assembly assist systems can help ensure that the right part is pulled from the right bin, preventing wasted time and motion as well as reducing the potential for assembled devices to be diverted for rework. And since these tools are tracking and reporting each workcell’s assembly time, they provide a powerful tool to help address takt time and what steps could be taken to reduce the time spent waiting.

Digitizing Lean for the Factory of the Future

The i4.0 technology being introduced to create the Factory of the Future can help facilitate some of the fundamental concepts of Lean: reducing waste and improving material, people and information flow — especially information.

However, it’s important to recognize that technology alone cannot implement Lean. In many ways, unless a plant or organization is fully invested in Lean principles and processes, there is the potential for wasted investment in technology. There are three elements that companies need to have in place to make the best use of i4.0 technology:

  • A commitment to applying Lean principles and practices to identify waste and its root causes
  • Real continuous improvement processes (CIP) in place that provide clear feedback mechanisms across the enterprise, so that inputs and observations from all personnel — line managers, production workers, maintenance staff, etc. — are captured and evaluated continuously, in the context of improving production
  • An agile methodology for implementing changes, based on the Lean and CIP outputs, that ensures any improvements to be made are implemented.

With the advent of Factory of the Future systems, agility becomes even more critical: the real-time and historical trending data that i4.0 systems can provide will supply actionable answers to questions about how to improve productivity, reduce waste and become more flexible and responsive to changing market conditions.

By applying Lean principles to help understand the process and using CIP to leverage the newest ideas for improvement, and then using agile methodology to actually carry out the changes needed, the right technology investments can be made to intelligently move forward on the journey to the Factory of the Future.

Author Bio: Thomas Brown, Sales Engineer - Assembly and i4.0 Technology, and Rodney Rusk, i4.0 Business Leader, Bosch Rexroth Corp