What is lean manufacturing or lean production?

Lean manufacturing, or lean production, has been significant since the 1950s, when Fuji Cho, the CEO of Toyota, first developed lean principles for the Toyota factory. The fundamental principle of lean manufacturing is to do everything possible to eliminate waste and boost value.

According to Cho, waste is defined as “Anything other than the minimum amount of equipment, materials, parts, space, and workers time, which are absolutely essential to add value to the product.”

Lean manufacturing recognizes three kinds of waste:

    • Wasted materials, including raw materials wasted on a sub-quality batch, energy wasted due to inefficient equipment, and overproduction.
    • Wasted time, including employee time wasted on a product that’s not needed or below standards, on investigating or repairing part failures, or on unplanned downtime.
    • Wasted money on any unnecessary costs, including extra work hours, materials, or personnel.
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Over the decades, lean production has evolved into approaches like Six Sigma and the Four Principles and has been adapted to a whole range of industries and verticals, but the fundamentals remain the same.

Recently, lean manufacturing gained a boost from the application of Industry 4.0 technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), and big data from IIoT devices.

For example, lean manufacturing / lean production draws on continuous improvement/continuous development (CI/CD), examining every process for ways to improve value and cut waste. Traditionally, this would require frequent pauses in production to allow for analysis and experimentation, but AI and ML can crunch sensor and IIoT data consistently for ongoing refinement.

Why does lean manufacturing matter to process plants?

For manufacturing plants, lean production is crucial for helping companies optimize productivity and remain competitive in a crowded market. Every sub-quality batch, unplanned shutdown, and unexpected part failure means a loss of profits and a rise in expenses.

In the last few years, the number of issues facing process plants has grown noticeably. Health and safety requirements, the need for sustainability, ongoing demands for high and consistent product quality, increasingly complex supply and distribution chains, and rapid fluctuations in market appetites have narrowed profit margins and raised the impact of lean manufacturing.

How can process plants implement lean manufacturing?


Gather data in a single repository

Lean manufacturing is all but impossible without accurate, real-time, and comprehensive data. Process plants need to ensure that they aren’t just tracking plant metrics, but are gathering and storing data in a central repository that removes siloes and makes all the datasets accessible to analytics tools.

Adopt AI and ML in manufacturing

COVID-19 drastically accelerated adoption of advanced AI and ML-powered analytics tools, but the digital transformation isn’t complete. Plants need to apply AI and ML so they can detect the earliest signs of part failure, smoothly enable CI/CD, and spot inefficiencies in the system.

Improve root cause analysis

Right First Time (RFT) manufacturing is a big part of lean manufacturing, but it’s only possible to get it right first time if you know what’s holding up your processes, where the bottlenecks lie, and how to remove roadblocks.

How does lean manufacturing make process plants more competitive?

Process plants are always seeking ways to gain maximum value with minimum cost, which lies at the heart of lean manufacturing. Lean production principles enable them to boost productivity and revenues through optimizing overall efficiency. When married with industry 4.0 tools and digital culture, lean manufacturing holds the potential to drastically enhance competitiveness and profitability for process manufacturing plants.