The future of lean

5 mins read

As automation and Industry 4.0 become increasingly mainstream, is there still a place for ‘traditional’ lean manufacturing methods?

Lean manufacturing principles have been part and parcel of many a shopfloor for decades. The idea of reducing the Eight Wastes (Transport, Inventory, Motion, Waiting, Over-production, Over-processing, Defects and Skills) were first devised in Japan in the 1980s, although Benjamin Franklin’s 'Poor Richard’s Almanack' first mentioned the term ‘lean production’ in the mid-18th century.

Through that time, the basic principles have survived three industrial revolutions, a global supply chain and a radical shift in the way products are manufactured on a day-to-day basis. However, the current, Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to discard 250 years of hard work when it comes to lean thinking. Manufacturers are looking at the substantial efficiency gains that automation and robotics technology can bring and suffering from ‘lean fatigue’ – frustrated by the relatively incremental improvements that lean delivers.

There is, though, a large overlap between the principles of automation and those of lean. “Automation is designed to increase productivity in the work process,” says Adina Tarry, an associate of the Agile Business Consortium. “Lean has the exact same purpose. If we look at lean principles, such as eliminating waste, we can think of a number of steps in a process that can be automated to help with that.”

Human input still needed

Indeed, says Mark Gray, UK sales manager for Universal Robots, a Danish manufacturer of ‘cobots’ (collaborative robots), if used properly, automation can have a significant impact on your productivity and waste levels.

“Think of a company that makes drawers for a kitchen unit,” he says. “It’ll be someone’s job to screw the base to the sides, and the sides to the front – all day long. The factory will want to take away some of the tedium and strain of using a screwdriver all day. They could invest in a cobot and get the worker to line up two drawer assemblies at once. The cobot can then screw together both drawers. You’ll get twice the work out of one cell. Automation is ideal for automated tasks and speeding up potential bottlenecks.”

Any benefits that automation can bring, however, are hamstrung by the abilities of the person that programmes it. We aren’t yet at the stage where robots can programme themselves. “We have a tendency to anthropomorphise everything,” says Tarry. “However, we have to remember that a robot, like a dishwasher, is just a machine. It is only ever as good as the human who programmes it. Right now, a robot can only do one thing at a time, albeit much faster than us. Humans, ultimately, control how well – and, indeed, how lean – they do that task. We still need to look at the work a robot is doing, extrapolate it and look to improve on it.”

This is where the shopfloor staff come into their own, and can be empowered to make a significant difference. “If you have worked in the same cell for years, you’ll know the process inside-out,” continues Gray. “You can then build efficiencies into the automation that others just wouldn’t think of. Our founder calls this 'Industry 5.0': empowering everyone to use robots to make their lives simpler."

Attitude holding UK back

A major hold-up stopping manufacturers from fully embracing Industry 4.0, especially in the UK, is a fear that introducing robots will lead to job losses. However, as already demonstrated, human input is still needed to programme efficiencies into robots. Added to that, says Tarry, there is no historical precedent for job losses.

“In the previous three industrial revolutions, while low-skilled jobs have been lost, the overall number of roles in manufacturing has gone up,” she explains. “The technology performs the lowest-skilled roles, allowing people to become more skilled and add more value, which in turn creates more jobs.”

Despite this, the UK is lagging behind other industrial nations when it comes to automation. Data released in February by the International Federation of Robotics ( found that robot density in the UK sits below the global average. This, says Gray, is setting UK industry back. “The UK has the lowest robot density in Europe, despite having a high-tech, high-value manufacturing industry that demands efficiency,” he explains. “China is currently one of the biggest users of cobots on the planet. They’ve realised that, to stay ahead of other industrial nations, they have to automate. If other countries start automating as well, the advantages will come down to things like logistics – if a company is building products to send into Europe, making them in the UK will become a lot more attractive than manufacturing in China.

“The current reluctance to invest in automation in the UK is very frustrating. The nature of what we manufacture has changed over the years, but maybe we’re still too focused on building profit back into the products we’re making, and not looking to invest elsewhere.”

A turning point

Soon, though, we may have no choice but to accept the inevitable and invest in automation. Brexit, a more connected international supply chain and wider market forces will mean manufacturers can’t just rely on ‘traditional’ lean methodologies and hope to see any drastic improvement. “The ideals of lean state that improving your production process will ultimately make your product more profitable,” says Gray. “Added to that, if you can use automation to build your products cheaper and to a higher standard, you’ll win more market share,and create more jobs.”

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the ‘power’ of Industry 4.0 and the rise of robotics. However, in the UK at least, we have been set in our ways, focusing on the incremental benefits that lean can bring. Applied correctly, and with an empowered workforce, automation can bring site-wide efficiency gains that will help bring the wider manufacturing industry in this country back in line with the rest of the developed world.

BOX OUT: Bosch Rexroth turn to CI to implement Industry 4.0

Bosch Rexroth’s facility in Glenrothes, Scotland, designs and manufactures radial piston motors for the mobile hydraulics market. Its products can be found on everything from forklift trucks to cement mixers, and from road-rollers to aerial work platforms.

Many of these are exported around the world. The firm looked to implement Industry 4.0 into the plant, following on from the success of Bosch’s Homburg factory in Germany (pictured below). However, as a vital part of the supply chain for some of the world’s biggest construction and earthmoving companies, it was vital to keep the plant running while making the changes. The company’s focus on Continuous Improvement was key to ensuring this ran smoothly.

“There is no pressure from customers or indeed for us to introduce Industry 4.0, but there is pressure for Continuous Improvement,” explains Alastair Johnstone, managing director of Bosch Rexroth UK. “We need to give customers what they want, when they want it. All we are striving for is what we have always strived for, to improve our effectiveness and our efficiency. We are always thinking about how we can get better. This is just an extension of our current approach – it doesn’t just mean new tools and techniques, but also challenging the way we plan for the future.”

As a result, Johnstone and the rest of the management team at Glenrothes have taken a gradual approach to introducing Industry 4.0, rather than in one ‘Big Bang’. Initial implementation involved limited machine condition monitoring in critical areas of machine cells and assembly. “This was both in respect of improving existing processes, simplifying the operation for the operators and providing real-time information to drive further improvements,” explains Johnstone. “In parallel, everyone involved gains knowledge and becomes increasingly comfortable with not just the tools but the thinking and potentials behind yet further improvements.”

The firm envision that the transition to Industry 4.0 will increase empowerment and communication amongst team members. Later this year, Glenrothes hope to have installed a fully Industry 4.0-ready production line that will offer more capacity and help synchronise flow processes and enhance throughput.

Overall, the time is right to take the Glenrothes facility to the next level. “This fits with our CI philosophy,” says Johnstone. “Clearly Industry 4.0 can be as wide or as deep as you want. The key point is that this is a journey that we are just at the start of, but one we need to embrace and quickly, as the momentum generated by Industry 4.0 will only accelerate.”