The key to lean manufacturing in the digital age

The history of lean may stretch back more than a century, but it’s as relevant today (and will be tomorrow) as it was when first conceived.

Rather than replacing lean, digital technologies are helping to identify previously unattainable efficiency opportunities and augmenting employees’ efforts to unlock unparalleled levels of productivity and innovation. Here’s what your organisation needs to know.


Image courtesy of Shutterstock

For decades, lean manufacturing methodologies have been delivering impressive efficiency increases, helping to boost productivity and generate cost savings
Image: Shutterstock


Manufacturers are, by their very nature, an innovative bunch. They pour more time and money into research and development than any other sector, they create elegance from blocks of raw material, they are responsible for almost half of total UK exports, and they are often among the first to embrace new technologies.

For many of them, innovation isn’t a word but a state of mind, a deeply-rooted desire to constantly seek out a more efficient way, an improved process, a cleaner design, a simplified workflow.

These goals interlace perfectly with the ideals of lean manufacturing – a continuous improvement strategy aimed at eliminating all waste from a process (be that material, movement or workload).

For decades, lean manufacturing methodologies have been delivering impressive efficiency increases, helping to boost productivity and generate cost savings. It wasn’t uncommon to hear of businesses doubling capacity with existing resources, achieving a near zero-defect rate, or slashing lead times by up to 75%.

Today, however, many businesses have witnessed a decline in their results. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Were we really expecting these breakthrough, double-digit gains to continue forever?

So, what happens next? What’s going to drive the next wave of continuous improvement? How can manufacturers delve deeper into their processes and tease out hidden insights by comparing and contrasting different machines, production lines, labour shifts, even factory locations?

That’s where technology comes in, particularly digital platforms, systems and data.


Digital manufacturing

There’s been a lot of talk about the ‘digitalisation of manufacturing’ and the competitive advantages it brings, talk that many manufacturers appear to have been listening to.

The vast majority of organisations believe that ‘Smart Factory’ technologies such as robotics, software automation, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, big data analytics, and smart mobile devices will:

  • improve their supply chain relationships (89%),
  • accelerate innovation and design development (87%),
  • enable staff to work smarter (91%),
  • and increase productivity without raising headcount (91%*)

The figures above suggest that the message that digitalisation leads to efficiency improvements across the board, from the production line through to the workforce, supply chain and customer service, has been received loud and clear.

Yet, a wide gap still exists between awareness and investment and adoption, particularly among smaller companies, who report being confused by the avalanche of messaging about digital adoption.

So, what’s holding companies back? It doesn’t appear to be a lack of finance – 86%* of businesses say they are primed to invest in new digital technologies, 75%* of which say they can self-finance projects.

What lies behind industry’s somewhat sluggish response to date is a lack of understanding necessary to form coherent, effective strategies and practical applications.

As with every previous seismic shift to the way we work, this latest wave of industrial has generated dozens of different buzzwords, phrases and acronyms.

A quick search online for the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ returns more than 40 million results, a huge amount but one that pales in comparison to the 220 million returned for ‘Industry 4.0’.

*All figures taken from the Annual Manufacturing Report 2020, researched and produced by The Manufacturer.


A helping hand

Combine this enormous volume of information with a lack of aspirational case studies demonstrating what ‘good’ looks like, and it’s little wonder that many have been left feeling dazed and confused.

That’s why this blog series – Lean manufacturing in the digital age  – has been created; to provide manufacturers with an invaluable resource to assist them in understanding how and why their industry is undergoing such a radical technological revolution and the proactive steps your organisation can take as a response.

We’ll be exploring the key technologies driving the digitalisation of manufacturing, we’ll share the stories of those businesses who have already embraced them and offer top tips for how getting started and sustaining momentum.

One thing is for certain; regardless of your preferred term to describe it – or even level of belief in its staying power, the digitalisation of manufacturing is happening and happening at pace.

Digital technologies have already fundamentally reshaped how we communicate, socialise, shop and entertain ourselves. Next in line is how we make things, and the winners will be those that embrace the opportunities and place themselves at the forefront of this new industrial wave.


The new wave of Lean manufacturing integrates technology alongside to reap benefits. This blog identifies the core areas to consider when beginning your Lean journey.

For further reading, The Access Group and The Manufacturer have created a resource hub on Lean to assist manufacturers looking to take proactive technological steps.

Every Monday, we will be publishing a new article in the Lean manufacturing in the digital age series:

  1. The key to Lean Manufacturing in the digital age
  2. Is Frankenstein’s monster disrupting your Production Planning?
  3. Don’t let Legacy Software be the albatross around your neck
  4. Does your supply chain contain more holes than Swiss cheese?
  5. Greater productivity isn’t delivered by hand
  6. Could the loss of one person sink your business?
  7. Supply chain transparency – helping manufacturers to deliver the goods
  8. Digitally empowered workers are key to unlocking greater productivity


*All figures taken from the Annual Manufacturing Report 2019, researched and produced by The Manufacturer.