Industry 4.0: What about lean?

What is Industry 4.0? And will it bring the era of lean manufacturing to an end? Here’s an exclusive preview of an article coming up in the next issue of the Lean Management Journal.

Industry 4.0 and lean

Germany—the European manufacturing powerhouse—has set a new course for its future high-tech industry. Under the strategy “Industry 4.0”, Germany is in transition to the “fourth industrial revolution”.  Cloud computing, internet of things, real-time sense-and-response technologies, cloud-based services, big data analytics, robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and so on, are foreseen to revolutionize how we make things and deliver services today. Indeed, our factories and businesses are changing. But where does this leave lean? Will developments in technology leave lean irrelevant?

A discontinued coal plant complex in Essen, Germany (Zollverein AG) (Photo:
A discontinued coal plant complex in Essen, Germany, illustrates the transition from Industry 2.0 to Industry 3.0 (Zollverein AG) (Photo:

The four industrial revolutions

Industry 4.0 is the current high-tech manufacturing strategy of the German government. It was first presented as a concept in 2011, and has been researched, debated and further defined since then. Industry 4.0 is based on tight integration of modern information technology in the manufacturing and supply chain operations (called cyber-physical production systems). The objective is to create “the intelligent factory” during the two next decades.

Industry 4.0 refers to the fourth industrial revolution (see figure). The first industrial revolution started in Great Britain and took place around 1760-1840. It involved the establishment of factories using mechanical machines and steam or water power to move from craft production to industrial manufacturing in the textile industry. A century later, around 1870-1930, the second industrial revolution took advantage of electrical power and moving assembly lines to introduce the era of mass production.

Industry 4.0 lean production
The four industrial revolutions (Source:

The third industrial revolution started around 1970, and took advantage of developments in information technology and operations research to transform how we plan, control and automate production. We got numerically controlled machines (CNC), material resource planning software (MRP, later ERP), computer aided engineering, -design and -manufacturing software (CAE/CAD/CAM), and automated material handling conveyors and robots. It is within this paradigm of industrial production lean was born—partly in parallel-, partly in competition- and partly in cooperation with the digitalization of the workplace. Today, state-of-the-art manufacturing combines the philosophy of lean production with automation and IT technology.

We’re now in the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution. This introduces the internet of things in manufacturing; the digital and physical worlds merge. One central idea is to move from a centralized to a decentralized production model where materials and machines communicate with each other in real-time without the need of a fixed production plan. The shop-floor of smart factories will be embedded within the global networks of supply and demand through the cloud. It will be self-diagnosing, self-optimizing and self-configuring. The result is intelligent value-creating supply chain networks that autonomously and automatically respond to changes in end-demand.

Clearly, Industry 4.0—when realized—will revolutionize the current business models of how we design, manufacture and deliver products and services. Is the era of lean manufacturing soon to end?

Role of lean in Industry 4.0

Lean will not fade with Industry 4.0. Quite the opposite, lean principles are likely to become more important. The fourth industrial revolution can enable the true lean enterprise. Industry 4.0 permits a much richer understanding of the customer demand and allows the immediate sharing of the demand data throughout complex supply chains and networks. Smart factories can produce faster with less waste. Industry 4.0 enables a much quicker one-piece flow of customized products. It has the potential to radically reduce inventories throughout the supply chain.

On the other side, with radical changes in the environment come changes in lean as a practice. Assumedly, there will be less physical kanban cards, less andon cords, less whiteboards and similar technical lean solutions in future factories. But that is not a pity; Toyota has never looked at these tools and practices as objectives in their selves, they are just technical solutions to minimize wasteful processes. One of the most promising advances in technology is the possibility to share—and act on—real-time information in a coordinated end-to-end supply chain. This enables a radically improved form of instant just-in-time pull production.

In short, Industry 4.0 technologies may be exactly what we need in order to create lean supply chains and networks. Lean is about doing more with less—today and in the future.

14 thoughts on “Industry 4.0: What about lean?

  1. I believe that Industrie 4.0 will create even more challenges concerning-machine interaction. Even with “old” technology we are struggling exploiting the opportunities due to such challenges. Because of that, Lean as a mindset will not be less important under 4.0.

  2. Lean misses the point of Jidoka unfortunately and by having whiteboard and Kansan cards you engage people to process continuous learning. To remove learning is to kill continuos improvement through lean techniques.

    Richard W.
    Calgary AB, Canada

    • Good reflections Richard. Importance of Learning should not be underestimated (see also the new post about lean leadership). I agree that white boards and kanban cards are much more hands-on than the digital solutions we have today. But this is changing. Moreover, especially physcial kanban cards are prone to so many human errors that even simple systems tend to vapor over time. Let’s sse what the future brings for lean.

  3. As I take it, CIP needs in 4.0 some basic IT skills and coding mindset. Will this be part of Lean Basic Training, or we need CIP-IT supporter workforce for it (waste in process)? It´s a good question of the future.

  4. Pingback: Industry 4.0 and Lean - Simply Lean

  5. People still can learn to improve without kanban cards. The logic would still be the same but the approach could be different.

  6. Most, if not all, of the ‘lean’ tools are, after all, countermeasures to improve the current system until the ultimate (single-piece flow) can be implemented. IT and broad-band connectivity may help, as long as they support the same goal as the existing countermeasures. Note that I did not say that the IT tools/systems need to replace the existing physical tools/systems.
    The focus must remain on the stated goal of ‘reducing the time from order placement to product delivery’.

  7. Pingback: Why Supply Chain Integration Is Crucial In The Industry 4.0 Era | Young Upstarts

  8. Pingback: Why Supply Chain Integration Is Crucial In The Industry 4.0 Era — George Tampakas

  9. Industry 4.0 may be just another fad that comes and goes. In an ideal lean operation with perfection single piece flow, Industry 4.0 is just a set of digital gadgets. The point of view presented in the graphic “The four industrial revolutions” is just that, a list of gadgets.

    There is another view on the history of the industrial revolution, which is how work was organised: From Craftsmen over the Factory System, the Taylor System, …, TQM/Lean. Here the major building blocks aren’t gagdgets but people. And Industry 4.0 hasn’t much to say about that.

    Also moving Lean tools into the computer has some disadvantages (loss of flexibility, information hiding, loss of haptic experiences, …) which is why some software development teams still use physical boards and cards to organise their work.

    Industry 4.0 feels like a marketing buzzword waiting to be filled with content. It will become a part of Lean, but hardly the other way around.

Comments are closed.