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Lean for digital manufacturing: The human factors critical to IoT success

Oct. 9, 2018
Lean principles can help your people deploy the right IoT technology at the right time.

Manufacturing is evolving. Digitization, improved monitoring and sensors, and faster computing and data networks have produced a new, smart factory environment. This evolution has been described as Industry 4.0 – the utilization of internet of things (IoT) technology, automation and other smart factory technologies.

The problem with the current definition of Industry 4.0 is that it ignores or undervalues the role of human knowledge and creativity. Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted on April 13, 2018, in response to production issues the company was experiencing: “Yes, excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”

The path forward for manufacturing is to activate both plant-floor workers and the IoT and then leverage plant floor workers’ abilities to analyze the right data at the right time and in the right places. Add in the use of integrated Lean principles, and manufacturers will create a culture of sustained continuous improvement (CI). I call this Manufacturing 4.0. It’s what Industry 4.0 should be.

One fact remains central to our success as manufacturers: Humans are and will be central to the smart factory of the future. In the same way that humans are fundamental to Manufacturing 4.0, we are central to achieving a more lean factory. Those who truly understand what lean is all about know that human intelligence, creativity, and innovation are at its heart. It’s about harnessing and augmenting those human abilities so that companies are able to achieve improved efficiency and effectiveness in plant operations.

Apply the right technology at the right time

In a lean factory, people have access to the right technologies to aid in solving problems, thus augmenting their contribution. Technology is not deployed just because you can, but rather intelligently leveraged where it makes sense to do so.

I was working at a large automotive supplier in the mid-1990s. Automation was being pushed throughout the industry, certainly at our plants. The result was that we automated and installed robots on every production line we could but subsequently struggled to keep the lines operating. It wasn’t that the technology was faulty; we just weren’t ready for it. A robot can’t do what a person can do. There are applications where robots are the perfect solution and many where they are not.

The right amount of technology at the right time is the optimum outcome (or will lead to the optimum outcome). This is only possible when leaders understand the capabilities of their people and look for intelligent ways to automate low value-added tasks and refocus people where they can contribute more. The best examples are where people and the technologies they’re using are evolving at the same pace.

Engage hearts and minds

People are uniquely equipped to solve problems if we let them, and they remain the central driving force to success in the factory of the future.

Now we have more data, more tools, and more technology that can be used together to either drive progress or to cause stagnation. More data can’t be of benefit unless you have people analyzing it to identify, prioritize, and solve problems. Technology can even create problems. You might use IoT sensors or artificial intelligence to solve a problem, but you’re often simultaneously creating a different problem:  more complexity.

When we can engage people to use their minds to think and create, it puts them in a position to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. By enabling them to improve surrounding operations, they will find efficiencies and make improvements. They will know that they’re making a difference, and that’s when you capture their heart in addition to their mind. Achieving this is what makes a company unstoppable.

Provide tools that enable

Understanding the central role of people is critical, but the question still remains of how to create an environment and set of tools where team members will engage in operational improvement. I will share two fundamental ways.

First, provide tools that enable your people. People need a voice. They need a way to communicate their improvement ideas to others who can respond to them (known as Kaizen). This empowers them to influence production, maintenance, quality and other important areas of plant floor operations.

People also need real-time visibility into what’s happening on the factory floor. If they have actionable information while in the task, then identifying and addressing issues before they become worse is both possible and much more efficient. In particular, cloud-based systems have made real-time access to information easier than ever before.

About the Author: Bob Argyle

Bob Argyle is chief customer officer at Leading2Lean, a Wellington, NV-based provider of cloud solutions for manufacturers and other industrial organizations seeking to implement lean culture.

If we arm our people both with problem-solving/Six Sigma tools and accurate data, they’ll be in a position to influence their own success and the success of the plant. A key distinction to understand is that we must provide tools, not additional tasks. A system that requires more of a maintenance technician or operator and mostly serves to provide information to management is not a tool. A tool will make team members’ jobs and lives easier, therefore enabling them to improve their performance.

Second, build the right culture and leadership. When your people contribute improvement ideas, they need to know that those ideas will be considered and implemented if the ideas make sense. Otherwise, the flow of improvement opportunities will cease. There must be a culture that promotes participation, which must then be fostered by leadership.

Often, leaders think they need to make all of the decisions and create the plan for achieving the objectives. The problem is that they will never have the full picture until they involve the eyes and ears throughout the plant. Leadership’s role is not to come up with the ideas but rather to gather input from the entire team to be able to understand what the right solutions are to the problems at hand.

This does not mean deciding by consensus. It’s about collaboration and gathering insights in order to make better decisions. The companies that take an evolutionary approach to moving from where they are to where they want to be, and evolve the people along with the technology, will succeed.

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