Automation and People

This is the first in a series of posts about learnings from the Van of Nerds tour of 11 manufacturing sites in Northern France completed on September 9. First, I describe who we are, why and how we went on this tour. Then, to make this post more than just an introduction, I appended a summary of our observations on automation and people. There is more to come.

What is the Van of Nerds?

We are an international group of professionals — small enough to fit in a van — with decades of experience running factories, engineering production lines, consulting on improvement, and teaching in and out of academia while writing books, articles, and blog posts. Franck Vermet organized this tour, with a little help from me. On this tour, as on the prior one in Southern Germany that Christoph Roser had organized in 2019, we wanted to learn and share how leading manufacturers have made the latest Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) useful in the automation of their operations.

We are on the hunt for good ideas, and respect the accomplishments of the organizations that host us. We are not benchmarking them or generalizing about countries. Southern Germany was our destination in 2019 and Northern France this year because, in each of these areas, there are companies to learn from.

Scope of Our Investigations

“Lean” and “Industry 4.0″ are often used to describe our origins and the technology we investigate. While we use these terms ourselves, they are not fully descriptive of what we do and share, which is a passion for manufacturing, as we see it from different and complementary perspectives.

Lean and the Van of Nerds

Lean, has become so widely used that it now means precisely whatever each speaker chooses it to mean. As such, it doesn’t precisely account for what all of us do. Franck Vermet works under the umbrella of Safran’s Operational Excellence. Christoph Roser is committed to the Lean Manufacturing terminology; his blog is All About Lean. Torbjørn Netland talks about lean, manufacturing, operations management, and industrial engineering.

Cécile Roche has recently been writing about Lean Engineering. Ralph Richter was formerly in charge of Excellence Bosch Production System and Industry 4.0 and now teaches production systems. Peter Hines refers to both Lean and Excellence. After putting “Lean” in the title or subtitles of three books — Lean Assembly, Lean Logistics, and Working with Machines — meaning “generic TPS,” I stopped using it for having become too vague. 

Industry 4.0 and the Van of Nerds

Industry 4.0 is a German government program started in 2011 to boost the marketing power of the German automation industry. Here we see German Chancellor Angela Merkel promoting Industry 4.0 at the Hannover Fair in 2014. Industry 4.0 worked, in that it changed the conversation worldwide and shifted the attention of manufacturing company leaders from continuous improvement to investments in Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT).

In 11 years, it has enhanced the status of German automation industry in this space. Our interest is not in this program per se but in applications of IT and OT in manufacturing .

Government Policies in France and Other Countries

Since Industry 4.0 started as a German government program, it’s relevant to compare their policies with those of the French government for this tour, and those of other governments more generally.

Industry 4.0 and “numeric transformation”

The French government put “Industrie 4.0″ under the umbrella of “transformation numérique” (Numeric transformation), which encompasses all uses of information and communications technology in business and government, not specifically automation in Manufacturing. Our focus was exclusively on manufacturing.

While “Industry 4.0″ is a content-neutral name, “transformation numérique” literally implies that it’s strictly about numbers, which it isn’t. It’s about data, which encompasses anything read or written, including text, code, pictures, sounds and videos as well as numbers.

Industry 4.0 versus other national programs

Other countries have tried to one-up Germany by choosing a different name, like “Society 5.0” in Japan or “China 2025.” The adoption of the German term by the French government suggests that it does not view the manufacturing sector, ~10% of GDP, with the same concern as its counterpart in Germany, where it’s ~20% of GDP.

Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT)

Our interets enconpass OT and IT. The two differ in how they interact with the world:

  • Operational Technology (OT). If a system interacts with physical devices like a machine or a vehicle, it’s OT.
  • Information Technology (IT). If it interacts with other systems or with people through screens, lights, or audible alarms, it’s IT.

Downloading a process program to a machine based on a tag automatically read from a workpiece is OT; generating a production plan, IT. The boundary between the two is blurry and subject to disagreements between the IT and engineering departments. In our travels, we saw innovation in both areas. The term “automation” is used in both. We also saw many cases where IT and OT are separate worlds, due to organizational rather than technical issues. 

Our Approach

The “van of nerds” is literally a van. We start from a hotel in a strategic location, Stuttgart in 2019 and Paris in 2022, rent a 9-seater, visit plants within driving distance, and use the time in transit to discuss what we have seen.

In the van, Franck Vermet at the wheel and Christoph Roser riding shotgun

To the extent feasible, we learn about each site before visiting it. Our hosts give us a short presentation. Then we don personal protective equipment as needed and head for the shop floor for a tour that is more focused, deeper, and open than those routinely given for public relations.

After the tour of the shop floor, we return to the conference room and provide feedback to the hosts on the highlights that caught our attention and the opportunities we see as available to pursue.

Automation and People

Since the 1950s in the United States, automation has focused exclusively on machines and ignored people. This is clear from the absence of any discussion of the role people should play in the technical literature. As is well known, Toyota has taken a different tack with its jidoka, focused on human-machine systems. It aims to separate human work from the process performed by the machine so that an operator can do more than monitor a supposedly automatic machine full-time.

​Jidoka and Industry 4.0

The best-known aspect of Toyota’s jidoka is the ability of machines to shut down as soon as they malfunction. It was a technological breakthrough in looms 100 years ago but is common today, even in small household appliances. An Instant Pot, for example, displays “burn” and stops as soon as it overheats.

An Instant Pot stops automatically when overheating

In a production shop, this capability enables the operator to walk away while the machine is running a program, to tend to other machines, and to focus on the workpieces coming out rather than the machines during operation. All of this has implications, not only for the layout plans of the shops and their performance in quantity and quality, but also for the number of operators, their training, and their career management.

Industry 4.0 as a Regression

Jidoka has proven itself and, but in this area, Industry 4.0 represents a regression to classical automation. Industry 4.0 introduces cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things and cloud computing. Its purpose, however, not to facilitate or enrich the work of production operators. By allowing humans and robots to share a workspace without safety enclosures, cobots potentially improve human work. Still, there is no strategy to deploy them for this purpose, particularly in training and human resource management.

Grouping and understandably visualizing information to support decisions has always been an objective of enterprise computing. This is not new to Industry 4.0 but what we have seen in this area is IT for executives rather than OT for operators.

Operator Training

Operator training, capturing and transferring know-how between generations of employees is potentially the most valuable application of IT on the shop floor. Today, for many reasons, paper-based process documentation is inefficient, and many undocumented but essential tricks leave the company with retiring employees.

As a concept, the Training Within Industry (TWI) has not aged a bit. The technical means of its implementation, on the other hand, must be updated to take advantage of today’s IT tools. This application is not part of the Industry 4.0 panoply but is being developed and deployed by one of our hosts.

For full disclosure, this was Hapster, the business developed by Safran intrapreneur and nerd-in-chief for this tour, Franck Vermet, seen here accepting the trophy for digital learning for the best training project in France:

Franck Vermet’s award winning Hapster team

IT and OT training

The introduction of new IT and OT tools also requires training in their use, which is different from training on process operations. Topics range from infrastructure – installing, maintaining, and securing servers, routers, clients, sensors, etc. – to data science tools whose correct use cannot be guessed.

Computerization of daily management

In one factory, we saw the computerization of day-to-day management practices such as start-of-shift meetings in front of team dashboards and skills matrices.

Manual and Electronic Performance Boards

Such meetings in front of a manually maintained board are common, as in this 2017 example from Tim McMahon’s blog:

Tim McMahon’s example of daily team meeting with performance board

Tim McMahon picture of a team’s daily management meeting with a manual board. The same meeting with an electronic board is much less common:

Same example with electronic board photoshopped in

Meetings in front of an electronic board, like the one we saw, are much less common. It is actually difficult to find pictures of shop floor scenes with a team huddling around an electronic board. This is an area that, to our knowledge, ERP, MES, SCADA, or other systems have not entered but third parties have. The following picture is from the website a UK provider named Zaptic. The presenter wears a safety vest but the background looks like a conference room, not a production floor.


Ad for Zaptic’s e-board

Caveats on Electronic Performance Boards

Some of the information exchanged in these meetings deserves to be preserved. However, some precautions are called for to venture there:

  1. Allow annotation. Users of charts annotate them, and charts that are not used remain pristine. The electronic boards must not be display-only; they must be liveboards, allowing participants to mark up the charts and retain their annotations.
  2. Don’t create a surveillance environment. Capturing annotations made on a board is one thing; recording all the words spoken by participants in a meeting, on the other hand, is counterproductive and leads to self-censorship.
  3. Maintain flexibility. Unlike manufacturing processes whose modifications must be validated and controlled, daily local management practices must be modifiable by first-line managers without complex approval procedures or technical difficulties.
  4. Separate obligatory charts. An electronic performance board should contain only charts that team members use. Charts that serve to comply with external mandates should instead be posted where external auditors can see them. Commingling the two types hurts the credibility of the performance boards with operators.

The electronic displays are not free, but neither are the manual ones. The hardware costs for manual boards are trivial but the labor needed to keep them up-to-date and accurate is not. The team leader can maintain charts of data generated by the team itself, but some of the data is management communication, which needs to be printed and distributed to all teams.

Integration with Kaizen, or lack of it

On another site, we saw impressive Kaizen results, including operator-developed devices that doubled the productivity of an operation. These results were exclusively due to the mechanical ingenuity of an individual and had nothing to do with Industry 4.0. They didn’t need any automation technology that was unavailable 30 years ago.

The question of how Industry 4.0 can help this kind of activity remains open. Throwing OT at this shop might have been a distraction, preventing this Kaizen from happening. On the IT side, on the other hand, improvements in master data management would have helped.

Forthcoming posts

Automation and people was a key topic in what we saw. Others will be the subjects of further posts in this series:

#automation, #jidoka, #industry40, #lean, #i40, #it, #ot, #informationtechnology, #operationaltechnology