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Is Lean Manufacturing Still Relevant?

Sarah Venning
lean manufacturing arrows

With all of its focus on reducing waste, lean manufacturing is used by a lot of companies as a way to operate in a manner that is as streamlined as possible. Many major manufacturers have utilised lean manufacturing in various ways and to various extents; indeed, lean principles have helped to increase productivity amongst many household names and create a production environment that 'flows'.

However, it's been a number of years since lean manufacturing first came onto the scene and many things have changed in the meantime. So is lean manufacturing still relevant against the backdrop of modern processes and technology?

Recapping Lean Manufacturing:

READ: What is Lean Manufacturing?

When lean manufacturing first gained momentum, it was hailed as being both revolutionary and futuristic. Many manufacturers keen to replicate the success of early adopters of lean principles who had seen astounding results since its implementation. Some big-brand OEMs, such as Toyota, were pioneers of lean manufacturing, with the aforementioned creating its own production system (TPS) around the principles of lean manufacturing.

Lean manufacturing as a concept, focuses on reducing physical waste, as well as wasted resources such as time and even talent. Amongst other things, this means reducing downtime and refraining from stockpiling, creating a streamlined production area where space is not taken up to house excessive materials. There are many lean management systems which can be followed such as 5S and Six Sigma - each of these has their own set of values and some even follow a 'belt' system similar to that seen in martial arts. However, the principles of lean manufacturing are universal - operate with as many resources as you need and no more.

Although many people are quick to praise lean manufacturing, it is not without its critics either. There are some who believe that lean manufacturing is too rigid to accommodate human nature, instead demanding ceaseless productivity which is more akin to machines than people. It can also be argued that companies using lean manufacturing sometimes become so preoccupied with measuring performance that it becomes a counterproductive exercise, hindering efficiency instead of creating it.

Lean Manufacturing and Industry 4.0:

READ: Lean Manufacturing - Effective Management System or Corporate Cult?

With its focus on productivity, it could at first glance be argued that lean manufacturing would go hand-in-hand with more recent developments in the manufacturing world. Industry 4.0 has seen more automation, more communication between plant and devices, and more data becoming readily available than ever before. All of this points towards increased workflow and a ton of metrics to satisfy even the most rigid lean manufacturing practitioner. However, the coexistence of lean manufacturing and Industry 4.0 may not be as harmonious as it first appears.

Firstly, the implementation of automated plant and equipment inevitably requires a degree of downtime, which chafes against lean manufacturing ideals. As with any form of change, there is also a teething period during which productivity may not meet KPIs. This may put lean manufacturers off of buying into this new wave of technology too deeply - after all, if it isn't broken, don't fix it. However, lean manufacturing and Industry 4.0 can absolutely harmonise and there is a lot of synergy between their aims, especially when it comes to the flow of work and increased productivity. Automation helps to reduce production times and cuts back on a lot of unnecessary paperwork and administrative processes; meanwhile, the use of big data can satiate lean's demand for metric monitoring, providing organisations with a more in-depth overview of current strengths and weaknesses at a glance. This will help to guide lean businesses in the right direction and understand which areas need more attention and which do not.

The use of ERP systems also helps to automate areas such as quoting, job scheduling and inventory organisation, all of which are of interest to lean practitioners. Indeed, it could be argued that Industry 4.0 might be just the toolkit that lean manufacturing needs to develop and innovate; however, there may need to be some relinquishment of control and leaps of faith to ensure that both of these areas work in tandem with one another.

READ: Industry 4.0 For SMEs - Where To Start?

Is Lean Manufacturing Still Relevant in 2020?

The short answer is yes - lean manufacturing continues to be relevant in 2020 and will remain so for many years to come. In fact, this could be a very exciting time for lean manufacturing to evolve within a new space and with a new set of resources at its disposal.

The principles of lean manufacturing are both timeless and universal, meaning that they will continue to help OEMs in future as they have done since their inception. However, a certain degree of evolution needs to occur to ensure that lean manufacturing in practice doesn't become obsolete, irrelevant or otherwise outdated.

As long as lean manufacturing practitioners are open-minded about the possibilities and opportunities that modern technology presents, it will continue to remain a valuable fixture to companies of all shapes and sizes moving forward.

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About Sarah Venning

Sarah is a sales & marketing content writer, with eight years of experience within the engineering & manufacturing industry.  Working both at Qimtek and on a freelance basis, she can usually be found hammering away at a keyboard or with her head in a pile of engineering drawings. 

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