Since published in 1990, “The Machine that Changed the World” has set the standards for how to organize processes according to Lean philosophies. Later onwards and still today, countless companies have adapted their business systems to organize processes more flexible and more efficient according to Lean criteria.

Already in the mid-seventies started, with a higher impact throughout the first decade of the 21st century, enhancements in the Information Communication Technologies (ICT) contribute to reaching another level of efficiency and flexibility.

Those advances in connectivity, additional to big data and the expansion of the (industrial) internet of things have led to new use cases of Intelligent Manufacturing Technology. By now, data is ubiquitous across the organization, and the convergence of Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) enables opportunities that have not been possible before.

Already a higher number of companies (e.g. McKinsey Lighthouse Manufacturers) moved beyond their pilot areas for the deployment of Industry 4.0, Smart or Virtual Factories initiatives. However, the majority is still in the beginner phase. Since the variety of keywords regarding smart factories is enormous, on which technologies should you focus on to do not stay beyond the productivity frontier? Which processes to select to start your journey? Who to assign responsibility to?

Always combine ownership; you also only have one process!

Here are a few recommendations based on my experience.

Ideally combine the ownership for continuous improvement, digitization, and automation in a holistic view.

Continuous improvement is aiming to improve processes/ systems according to Lean/ Six Sigma/ Operational Excellence philosophies (eliminating waste). Similar automation and digitization are striving to improve processes/ systems based on technical enhancements. Do not divide responsibilities (Continuous Improvement Engineer, Automation Expert, Digital Transformation Expert, etc.) because you do not have the right skilled people in place. Always combine ownership; you also only have one process!

Always start in a Pilot area before scaling but chose the area carefully.

Implementing new technologies (Robotics, 3D Printing, AGV, etc.) or improving business processes (Pull Systems, Shop Floor Management, etc.) is always a challenge. There are resulting questions regarding the technology/ systematic, the process changes, and always something happens which has not been foreseen. Before implementing, the technology should be tried out in a pilot area. This area needs to be chosen carefully regarding the involved people (open mindset), the technical scope, as well as the environment. Ideally, the site should reflect an entire business process (to see the business impact at whole) and not only a silo within the process (e.g. a functional department). A good starting point for identifying the area would be based on the Porter Value Chain Analysis. In any case, avoid functional silo thinking!

Start with Lean Tools to focus on the process – Having the end in mind.

If you have chosen your pilot area, it is all about selecting the use cases for new technologies. Looking to your process through the eyes of Lean is enabling you to dig into improvement opportunities. Value Stream Mapping is the perfect tool to screen the process regarding the efficiency level, opportunities for improving flexibility, and potentials to increase the motivation of employees. Afterwards, it is the starting point to think about technical enhancements: Assembling the part and moving it into the box could be done with a collaborative robot. Moving the box to the storage area could be done with an AGV. Supervising the press with a Manufacturing Execution System could show potentials for improving efficiency. And so on - You will always find opportunities. Key for success is that this needs to be a combined exercise from the people responsible for the production and continuous improvement. It would be best if you learned to see process opportunities.

Technology scouting and Maturity assessment – Provide a vision.

In parallel to the shop floor initiatives, it is imperative to pursue a systematic technology scouting. This is important for various reasons. First, it ensures that people stay ahead of technology. They understand technology as well as use cases. By deploying a maturity assessment for the various technologies, it helps to build a holistic view of what is possible and how to deploy. Exemplary for the dimension of intelligent maintenance, the data-driven aspect is shown below. Also, it is essential to show a vision to the people, to challenge continuously and to stimulate. Technology scouting enables you to stay ahead of technology and to analyze your processes according to use cases continually.