Why lean manufacturing is the best route forward for Wales

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Author: Graham Howe, Principal Research Fellow, MADE Cymru, University of Wales Trinity Saint David

Lean manufacturing puts people before technology, enabling teams to make better decisions on behalf of the companies they work for.

All too often, we hear about how Industry 4.0 (the fourth industrial revolution) will dramatically change our manufacturing and business models. Understandably, this leads many companies to ask which technologies are the right ones to invest in, or which skills will be needed in order to deploy the latest Industry 4.0 tools and processes.

An even more important question to consider is how Industry 4.0 technologies will positively impact your productivity and competitiveness. After all, unless your company is likely to see significant improvement in these areas, it makes no sense to invest in expensive technologies.

Here at University of Wales Trinity Saint David, our MADE Cymru programme aims to unravel potentially confusing challenges like these. Our approach begins by looking at what companies need in order to increase their productivity and competitiveness. We aim to lead the businesses we work with through a journey of continuous improvement – a journey that makes the most of Industry 4.0 technologies and their ever-growing digital capabilities to help solve the specific problems faced by each company.

Continuous improvement through lean manufacturing

In the second edition of his seminal work The Toyota Way, Dr Jeffrey Liker discusses the concept of a ‘lean’ production system in the digital age. Lean manufacturing means eradicating waste and ensuring that every element of the production process is efficient, maximising value and increasing competitiveness for businesses and their customers.

To achieve a truly lean production model, it’s important for companies to support their people in learning the skills and processes required to effectively harness new technologies. While advanced technologies certainly have the potential to increase productivity and effectiveness, equipping the people in your team with relevant skills and training must come first.

Without a foundational knowledge of the principles behind Industry 4.0 technologies, manufacturers may end up implementing inefficient systems, or investing in tools that simply aren’t suitable for their needs.

This is why our MADE Cymru programme takes a people-first approach, upskilling individuals with principles and methods they can apply to a variety of manufacturing situations for the benefit of their employers. Indeed, as Liker puts it in The Toyota Way, people are at the heart of sustainable continuous improvement journeys: without the individual contributions of a skilled team, the technologies we invest in will fail to produce the results we need.

Lean first, then digital

It can be tempting to assume that digital tools will provide all the answers we need to run efficient and competitive businesses. However, using clever technologies without a defined purpose can ultimately result in digitalised waste. It may even lead companies to measure the wrong things during manufacturing, resulting in expensive data which might not bring value.

So how can we harness Industry 4.0 technologies effectively, measure the right things efficiently and add real value to the data we gather? By thinking lean first, then digital.

An example of this approach in practice can be observed through the increasing popularity of ‘digital twin’ technology. Digital twins consist of software that can provide insights and decisions based on what will happen on a production line. Companies are often too quick to invest in digital twin technologies without first understanding the principles behind them, leading to waste and unnecessary expense.

A better approach might be to experiment with less advanced and more affordable ‘digital model’ or ‘digital shadow’ technologies. Such technologies allow teams to get to grips with the problems that need to be overcome during manufacturing, before developing a more advanced digital twin based on their specific needs.

By beginning with simpler digital models, teams will quickly build up the knowledge they need to identify potential wastes, beginning a continuous improvement project that adds value to the overall organisation. In other words, by starting lean and allowing the people in your organisation to organically learn new processes and technologies, your team will naturally begin to explore digital solutions that make real business sense.

Any continuous improvement journey with Industry 4.0 should begin with some initial steps to upskill your workforce. UWTSD’s MADE Cymru programme (a suite of EU-funded projects supported by the European Structural and Investment Funds through the Welsh Government and delivered by University of Wales Trinity Saint David) offers a unique and applied approach to Industry 4.0 training. Our courses and modules provide a supportive approach to learning about manufacturing methods and principles, leading to increased value to your customers.

To find out more about our fully-funded, flexible courses, call 01792 481199, email [email protected]