Modern understanding of lean has evolved over several decades and is mostly based on the knowledge gained from the past experiences. However, in today's world new knowledge and developments are evolving very fast, which means that our today's ingrained understanding can tomorrow already be old. In order to understand the bigger picture, the future developments and perspectives, we should first have a short look in the past.
The foundation of the first industrial revolution was set in 1784 with the first mechanical loom. Pushed by the introduction of water- and steam-powered mechanical manufacturing facilities, the industrialization started a new era of production. It was the century of coal and for the workforce it meant child labor, minimum wage, increase of occupational accidents and injuries. Leaving aside the negative, it was the first-time that production accelerated productivity to a new dimension. Even if the flow in production was not developed yet, machines enabled us to produce more and more parts per workstation and worker.
The first production line in 1870 is symbolizing the second industrial revolution. Electric power raised the possibilities of production. Mass production was born and showed the potentials of a continuous production flow. Cheap and low-skilled workers helped to raise productivity more and more, but at the same time identical products and repetitive tasks made the work boring. However, the quality and the cheap prices offered most people a new way of life by owning cars, washing machines and all the stuff, which in today's modern world are completely normal. It was the first-time, when a systematic flow was established, sustained and developed over the years.
In 1969 the third industrial revolution started, with the first programmable controller. The dawn of software changed the way of production from mechanical to electronic. By using electronics and IT, automation of manufacturing was settled. Workers developed new skills and became professional specialists. Products changed in shape and variations in order to compete for clients. A variable single-piece flow was born.
In some industries the fourth industrial revolution has already started. All machines and processes are virtually linked (internet or economy of things) and artificial intelligence will build the foundation of the new production century. Some may call this already part of the 5th industrial revolution. There will be no mass production, but life cycled customized products with customers as partial developers, so called prosumers. The workers are and will be always more closely involved in both product development and production. The flow of the future will not be built and sustained by humans anymore. The flow of the future will be algorithmic.
Other industries are moving fast towards this new era. From digital logistics like Amazon to production lines without a constant line anymore. The flow of the future will be an individual one for every piece and worker. The flow will be more and more created and sustained by mathematical intelligence to balance the overall flow with individual flows of millions of products.
The construction industry has developed a lot of new innovations in the last ten years. Most of them are in the field of digitalization. Therefore, the construction sector seems to be focusing on the shift from the third to the fourth industrial revolution. Digital Twins, digital networks and drones on site are just a few examples of the innovations in construction. However, there are still a lot of things that lag behind and are essential for further innovations. For example the flow on construction never reached the level of the secondary revolution like in other industries. Flow on the construction site was and is still project and human centered. Technology is supporting it, but not leading it to an effective construction like in production. The mantra of construction professionals is that “Construction is not comparable to production”. Construction is too volatile, too unique, too complex etc. for production methods.
Just to be clear. These arguments are popping up in all production processes around the world. Construction is therefore not special. All industries have similar problems and are forced to reduce product variances and flexibility to survive in business. Construction simply never had such compulsion. Construction is a basic need in society, with an ongoing demand since the early age of mankind. There has never been a question if the industry will be erased, while there are no customers anymore. Therefore modern production methods were never established and the construction sector has suffered from a lack of productivity since then.
The fourth revolution and especially the algorithmic flow will bring with it many positive aspects. It will lift the industry to a new level of agility and flexibility by keeping efficiency. Therefore, there is hope that the two key factors productivity and processes could revolutionize the whole industry by monetizing all the credits and efficiencies it has missed over the last 200 years. It could be a starting point of an economic miracle for the whole industry. However, like in all industries this level will never be achieved simply by catching up with current innovations. The construction sector industry will still be stuck in the same innovation trap as always, if they don’t fix the missing development of the last industrial eras before. Smarter gadgets don’t take our work to the next level. They are just assisting us and lowering the pain on site.
This is clear that algorithmic flow will not happen overnight, even if we are catching up with all the production methods. It all will take time. Like with self-driving cars, there will be levels of automation to get closer to the flow of the future. With every level you will gain more overview, more options and more speed of flow.
Algorithmic flow is the catalyst for construction 4.0 and a systemic production flow is the missing link to it!
Therefore, if you evaluate your future developments, always keep in mind: if you can’t scale it, it is not the future.