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Leveraging Industry 4.0 Technologies for Continuous Improvement Efforts

By this time, most of us are aware of what Industry 4.0 (I4.0) or Smart Manufacturing means. The basics are covered in a blog I wrote back in 2018 titled “Smart Manufacturing and Lean Six Sigma.” Just as with a Quality Management System or a Lean Enterprise, the journey towards a true digital enterprise, linking business processes with plant operations, also takes time.  

At TMAC we are aware that adopting Industry 4.0 is a huge challenge for many small to medium size firms. It involves (in most cases) significant capital investments, new skill sets, establishing support systems and addressing cultural change. While the adoption and maturity to realize the full vision of “Smart Factories” may take some time, many organizations, planned or not, are already embarking on the path to adoption of I4.0 Technologies in some form or fashion. Many have begun their I4.0 journey looking for solutions to address specific pain points. However, there remains a big gap in evolving from “single-point” solutions to systematic approaches.

This brings us to our current topic: How to integrate Industry 4.0 tools and methods with a formal Continuous Improvement (CI) Program like Lean Six Sigma? Fortunately, LSS practitioners are uniquely positioned at the core of their CI programs. Many practitioners have vertical access from top management to middle management to shop floor level employees, and can influence decisions throughout the organization with their CI efforts. This presents a great opportunity for belts to identify and present technological solutions as part of their LSS projects. So, how can LSS practitioners do this?

1) Learn about I4.0 Technologies and their potential capabilities: This starts with becoming familiar with Industry 4.0 technologies, their applications and benefits. Specifically, LSS practitioners should ask: How does each technology benefit their organization, what role does it play, how does it fit within the overall value stream, and what are the challenges with adoption? Having a better understanding of these questions helps belts identify and minimize risks associated with adoption of these technologies. This knowledge is also key to de-risk the technology to top management and better relay benefits to shop floor employees.

2) Assess Organizational Readiness for Technology Adoption: Think about the change we experience on an ongoing basis in our jobs. Every time Microsoft has pushed us to the next version of Windows, how many of us have grudgingly adopted? Or remember the times when your IT department pushes a new ERP system. Technology adoption, like any change, always comes with its own set of challenges. Employees may be concerned due to their unfamiliarity in using a new technology, fearful of job security, or just plain not willing to move out of their comfort zone. We should be actively addressing these challenges.  LSS practitioners are familiar with the equation R=Q*A, where R stands for Results, Q for the quality of the solution and A for Acceptance. So, what are we doing to prepare your organization’s “acceptance” of new technologies? How can we inform, clarify, visualize, influence, demonstrate and encourage adoption of such technologies?

3) Engage Leadership & Workforce: LSS practitioners are familiar with the concept of “resistance to change” as they all have faced it during their CI efforts. Technology adoption is no different. Just like other philosophies in the past (e.g., TQM, LEAN, JIT) to be successful Technology adoption requires a top-driven approach. Once senior leadership understands a potential application for a technology and is convinced of its ROI, they can influence the rate of adoption. Can LSS practitioners use smaller scaled “proof of concept” projects to convince management of the benefits of technology and at the same time address the fear of change with the workforce? This is similar to how many organizations in the past have used “Kaizen” events as a method to showcase the potential of “Lean as a philosophy”.

4) Start small and experiment: LSS practitioners should consider “some low-risk experimentation with technology” within their CI projects in the same way they use “Pilots” to educate and promote awareness of a proposed new solution. For example, during the exercise of analyzing a current state process map, can a belt facilitate a discussion with the project teams on potential technological opportunities (or barriers) to address the “Non-Value-Add” activities? I call this a Tech Mapping Exercise. The basic idea is to start with a traditional Value Stream Map, then to add a new layer of technology. Another possible experiment to consider when conducting a TPM Kaizen event is to use technology to enable data collection. The traditional way is to identify and document the sources of machine failures to measure OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness). In the past manual data entry was performed requiring operator input. The new approach to consider: Use sensorization to collect data. This not only helps establish a baseline on downtime, but also has an added benefit of providing real-time data monitoring capabilities. Other applications to consider: Making information readily accessible for effective decision making, Performance tracking and reporting through real-time Dashboards, Location tracking of assets and inventory management, and Automation of repeated tasks (bin picking, machine tending, sorting…etc.). What other technological based opportunities can Lean Practitioners use to address the 8 wastes (Lean focus) or to control variation (Six Sigma Focus)?

5) Celebrate Success: Manufacturers who have achieved a continuous improvement mindset celebrate success, which in turn motivates employees to make further improvements. The Industry 4.0 journey is no different? How do you promote awareness, recognize staff, and share lessons learned of your I4.0 Journey?

While technology adoption can sound like the “current thing” to do, it is important to remember that it is not the solution to every problem. Traditional Lean and Quality solutions are always applicable, but can be enhanced by adding the appropriate use of technology. The key is to still meet organizational goals (such as speed, quality, throughput, profits), but to answer the question: How and where can technology be embedded to maximize these goals?

No matter how your I4.0 journey begins, here are a few things to be mindful of:

  • Question Oneself – While automation can be attractive, are we automating the right things?
  • Prepare the Culture for this Change – Remember, the adoption is only as good as acceptance
  • Fail Fast, Fail Cheap – encourage smaller scale, rapid learning cycles
  • Keep an Eye on Capital Investment and ROI – Technological mistakes or lack of adoption can be very costly (in some cases can put companies on a dangerous path – recall Xerox, Blockbuster, Blackberry to name a few)
  • Don’t forget about Cyber Security – The Industry 4.0 evolution seeks a full-scale integration of IT and OT technologies. The more we move towards that end goal, the more we set ourselves up for potentially more attack surfaces which are available for bad players. Ensure that you are not adopting technology at the expense of security.

So, how did your I4.0 Journey begin? Please do share your stories and lessons learned.

Note: Through NIST and its network of Manufacturing Extension Partners (MEP), the US government is actively pushing for improving the competitiveness of US Manufacturing and its Preparedness for the next (Digital) Transformation of Manufacturing. These centers would not only be an excellent source of unbiased voice on technologies (vs suppliers selling their services), but also a source for funding opportunities to do Technology Assessments and “Proof of Concept” Projects. Contact your local MEP Center for more details and potential resources available to you. TMAC is part of the MEP network for the state of Texas.

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