In 1913, Henry Ford unveiled the world’s first moving assembly line and forever changed the way we work. Inspired by the brutal efficiency of Chicago’s meatpackers, Ford’s factories harnessed new technologies and more efficient ways of working to slash the time needed to manufacture a Model T from 12 hours to just 150 minutes, ushering in a new era of affordable personal transportation.
More than a century on, Ford’s ideas have been embraced not just by factories, but by operators in countless other industries. When you get your burger and fries at McDonald’s, the efficiency of the operation — with different parts of the task handled by the cashier, the fry-cook, the bagger and so forth — is a direct expression of Ford’s ideas. In other cases, people themselves move from one place to another: a ski lift, for instance, is little more than a conveyor belt for people, efficiently moving guests around the mountain to maximize the value operators can extract from a given slope.
But while businesses of all kinds have learned from Ford’s world-changing operational innovations, there are many other lessons that nonindustrial operators such as hotels, country clubs, restaurants and even retailers can learn from modern industrial facilities. Time hasn’t stood still since Ford’s day, and industrialists have found new ways to boost productivity and efficiency at their plants. With digital innovations transforming the industrial landscape, nonindustrial businesses now have a key opportunity to level up their operations by learning from factories and industrial plants.
Lessons from Industry 4.0
Central to that opportunity is the Industry 4.0 revolution, which has seen manufacturers and plant operators use digital technologies to create smarter, more interconnected workplaces. Using Internet of Things technologies, plant operators create digital virtual twins of every asset in their facility — from heavy machinery to mobile devices — and optimize operations in real time using advanced mobile software solutions.
That’s especially powerful when it comes to preventive maintenance. With the right digital tools, front-line teams can more easily access information about the work that needs doing, update jobs that are completed and ensure that equipment is kept in full working order. By enabling reliable task-tracking and better communication flows between managers and front-line workers, Industry 4.0 technologies can also help improve quality control, information sharing, productivity and many other aspects of the way an industrial facility is run.
Unsurprisingly, digitization is having a big impact on factory output and profitability. A recent BCG study found that Industry 4.0 technologies can increase productivity by up to 30%, driving a 6% increase in manufacturing employment. And there’s no reason those gains exclusively accrue to industrial players. Just as Ford’s assembly lines changed the way we run restaurants and resorts, so too advances in digitized manufacturing can filter through to deliver productivity gains for businesses of all kinds.
Connectivity Is King
Consider a fast-food company. Nobody’s suggesting that we should use IoT tech to track every single burger patty, but companies like McDonald’s and Burger King can certainly benefit by using digital tools to ensure their refrigerators, friers and drive-through kiosks are properly maintained. By taking cues from Industry 4.0 tools, a fast-food franchise can hook up equipment that’s distributed across hundreds or thousands of locations, and make sure that front-line maintenance crews have the mobile tools they need to work efficiently, document their results and keep equipment operating smoothly.
To get to that point, though, we need to rethink the way we create and deploy digital tools across the enterprise space. The Industry 4.0 revolution has been transformative, but it has also been circumscribed to a relatively narrow segment of the workforce. Too few business leaders in nonindustrial sectors look to factories and industrial facilities for inspiration, and too few enterprise software developers are looking to transfer the things we’re learning in both industrial settings and leading-edge desk-based software collaboration tools into new fields.
Choosing the right digital tools for maintenance crews and other mobile teams can be daunting. But front-line workers are already walking around with supercomputers in their pockets with intuitive controls, high-resolution cameras and high-speed web connections. Using those devices to create a system of record to coordinate workflows in front-line environments is a no-brainer. But until both managers and developers step up to make that happen, deskless workers across a wide range of enterprise roles will be short-changed and left using archaic and inefficient tools such as clipboards instead of the cutting-edge connectivity solutions they deserve.
Time to Get Smart
In some areas, of course, nonindustrial businesses are already learning from factories and industrial facilities. The principles behind lean manufacturing and just-in-time supply chains have found uses in many other sectors, and many workplaces — and even individual knowledge workers — now use the kanban organizational tools first developed by Toyota to keep things flowing smoothly.
But the flow of ideas from industry to the broader business world remains slow, and some of the most exciting ideas in modern industrial operations have yet to transfer across. Turning that around and bring Industry 4.0 ideas into sectors such as hospitality, retail, education and other areas requires a two-pronged attack, with sector leaders proactively seeking out the connected-worker tech they need and digitization leaders and software developers thinking creatively about how their technologies can be applied in spaces other than factories and warehouses.
If the mobile software industry broadens its perspective to include deskless workers in nonindustrial spaces, and IT and maintenance managers step up to demand better tools for their workers, we can deliver serious results. After all, we’re already running many of our businesses like factories and assembly lines. Now it’s time to go a step further and start running our businesses like smart factories, using the same digital tools and connectivity technologies that are transforming heavy industry. Done right, that could be every big as transformative as Ford’s invention of the moving assembly line.