August 11, 2021
min read

Digital lean manufacturing is a relatively new term for the food industry, although traditional lean manufacturing has long been implemented to increase efficiency and reduce waste. What has started in the car manufacturing industry to reduce waste and increase value for the customer, has subsequently been adopted by other industries, including large food manufacturing companies.

Food manufacturers are now revolutionizing their manufacturing processes with the help of digitalization and automation. The digital lean concept works through a range of new technologies such as factory and process visualization, IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things), artificial intelligence, robotics and big data analytics.

What is Lean Manufacturing?

Lean manufacturing, also called lean production or lean, is a methodology used by manufacturing companies to maximize customer value while minimising waste and increasing productivity. It optimizes and eliminates processes that do not add value to the customer to efficiently use resources.

Lean manufacturing is not a new concept. Toyota introduced lean principles in their factories as early as the 1930s to eliminate waste, called “muda” in Japanese. Muda means any investment of resources that do not create value for the business1.In contrast to mass production, lean manufacturing produces more with fewer resources, such as human effort, investment, equipment, storage, and time while meeting customer requirements1,2. The concept of lean opposes waste that is eminent in any process.

Figure 1 shows the seven types of waste found in processes: Transportation, inventory, motion, waiting, over-processing, over-production, and defects1. Womack and Jones1 added an eighth waste in form of products and services that do not meet customer requirements.

The 7 Wastes of Lean Manufacturing
Figure 1. The 7 Wastes of Lean Manufacturing

The goal of lean manufacturing is to increase efficiency and quality while reducing costs through continuous optimization of processes. Womack and Jones1 identified five lean principles that need to be implemented to achieve this:

  1. Specify value. Value is defined by customer needs. Any process that does not deliver value to the customer needs to be optimized or eliminated.
  2. Identify the value stream: Value stream mapping helps organizations to identify processes that do not bring value.
  3. Create Flow: Implementing cross-functional thinking facilitates smooth flow of the value stream without bottlenecks, interruptions, or delays.
  4. Implement Pull: The customer pulls the product as needed, reducing costly inventory.
  5. Pursue Perfection: Incorporating lean thinking and continuous process improvement into the organization's culture.

Digital lean manufacturing will revolutionize the food production floor

Our survey among New Zealand food manufacturers showed that food and beverage manufacturers still rely on pen and paper when it comes to data recording at critical control points or to monitor their processes. This practice facilitates the emergence of several areas of waste that could be reduced or eliminated by digitalization.

Digital lean manufacturing is the merging of IIoT devices and lean principles3. It uses IIoT devices, such as smart environmental or in-line production sensors, to gather process data in real-time and 24/7. These Industry 4.0 devices enable manufacturers to address waste much faster by offering instant insights into production processes.

With the help of digitalization, automation, machine learning and big data, manufacturers can drive their lean principles to the next level by leveraging their abilities to reduce waste while increasing value for their business and their customers. Digital lean even enables manufacturers to solve business problems that simply cannot be resolved by traditional lean manufacturing practices.

How digital lean manufacturing can enhance waste reduction

Digital lean can enhance the efforts of traditional lean manufacturing to reduce waste significantly:

1. Automated monitoring

Automated monitoring accelerates data capture and reduces manual errors significantly. Automation can also help uncover production or quality issues that would have stayed unnoticed by manual data recordings. Manufacturers can, therefore, reduce costly product defects while increasing product quality as well as profit.

2. Digitized processes

Digitization of processes not only eliminates mountains of paper but also the storage of these paper records. It also facilitates the data flow between departments and along the production line, reducing potential waiting times and, therefore, increasing efficiency and accelerating time-to-market.

3. Faster detection of non-conformances

IIoT devices can monitor production processes, equipment, staff and product movement or environmental factors and set off instant alerts in case of non-conformances, enabling manufacturers to detect issues, such as product defects or equipment breakdowns much faster. As a result, food manufacturers can increase productivity, reduce costs and increase profit.

4. Real-time analytics and trend analysis

Manually recorded data can hardly serve for data analytics and trend analysis as they are trapped on paper. Digitized processes and automated data capture, on the contrary, offer manufacturers a comprehensive overview and control of their production data and processes.

In-depth analytics and trend analysis enable manufacturers to detect upward or downward trends, seasonality and processes that do not add value before they result in major issues. Assessing if there is a correlation between trends and then carrying out a root cause analysis to get to the bottom of causation is all possible now.

As an example, IIoT sensors in combination with machine learning can predict when equipment needs to be maintained long before it eventually breaks down, decreasing production downtime.

5. Data visibility

Recording data with pen and paper or Excel spreadsheets impedes easy access to critical information, resulting in time-consuming investigations in case of non-conformances. Real-time visibility of process data can decrease labor, waiting time and drastically reduce product release times.

Digitising processes eliminates redundant data that is trapped on multiple paper forms. The automated data capture and storage in a cloud makes data easily accessible for all relevant stakeholders, improving interdepartmental information flow.

6. Meeting customer demand for sustainability

Consumers are increasingly demanding corporates to be socially and environmentally responsible. Sustainability is one of the most important global consumer trends4 . They expect manufacturers to be transparent about the sources of their ingredients, making these information instantly accessible, e.g. by the use of smart labels. Digital lean manufacturing helps food manufacturers increase its brand value to customers by reducing food waste during production and enhancing the tracking and tracing of their products. Moreover, the reduction of paper, as well as energy used in the organization due to the digitalization and optimization of processes, also serve the sustainability goal.

Digital lean – the future of the production floor

Digital lean can bring lean manufacturing to a whole new level, offering food manufacturers various benefits. According to Bain and Company5, organizations can reduce cost by 30% when they combine digital and traditional lean initiatives compared to a 15% cost reduction when they use only traditional lean manufacturing.

This significant reduction in costs represents a strong competitive advantage for those food manufacturers that implement digital lean in their production facilities. Increased productivity and accelerated time-to-market are additional benefits that will convince more and more food manufacturers that the adoption of digital lean manufacturing is going to be unavoidable to stay competitive.


1 Womack, J. P., Jones, D.T. (2003). Lean thinking: Banish waste and create wealth in your corporation (2nd edition). Free Press. NY, NY.

2 Wahab, A.N.A., Mukkhatar, M. & Sulaiman, R. (2013). A conceptual model of lean manufacturing dimensions. Procedia Technology (11). P. 1292-1298.

3 Romero, D., Gaiardelli, P., Powell, D., Wuest, T. Thürer, M. (2018). Digital lean cyber-physical production systems: The emergence of digital lean manufacturing and the significance of digital waste. Conference: APMS - production management for data-driven, intelligent, collaborative, and sustainable manufacturing (Volume: I). Moon et al. (Eds.), IFIP, AICT 535, Part I, Springer, pp. 11-20

4 Westbrook, G., Angus, A. (2021). Top 10 global consumer trends. Euromonitor International

5 Bain & Company (2019). Digital Lean. A guide to manufacturing excellence.

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