Dr. Henning Bork
Dr. Henning Bork
After studying mechanical engineering in Darmstadt, Berkeley and a doctorate in Munich, Dr. Henning Bork currently signs as "Senior Director Strategy" at ASM. He puts a strong focus on the development of the SMT Smart Factory and the digitization of business processes.

Industry 4.0 is the new kid on the block. How does it compare to MES & lean production?

Lean Production is a fundament for the Smart SMT Factory

(image: ©Frank11)

Welcome back! This time I would like to share my views on how Industry 4.0, manufacturing execution systems and lean production approaches relate to each other. Another company recently posted this question:

“As a company, should we implement Industry 4.0 or strengthen our lean production? If I introduce an MES in my production, will I already have a smart factory in the sense of Industry 4.0?”

Well, let’s try to break it down and look at the meanings of the different topics for a discrete production environment.

Lean production

A guiding principle to optimize the value-add of a production. The basic idea is to optimize production flows by avoiding all unnecessary work (i.e., waste), focusing on the customer, and having a more decentralized organizational structure with continuous process improvement.

Manufacturing execution systems:

Integrating IT and IT tools to control and guide orders through the production process.

Industry 4.0:

Integrating all production equipment horizontally and vertically and connecting it to the data backbone. Run MES applications and data analysis functions. Installing intelligent cyber-physical systems to actively respond to local production conditions in real time.


As you can see, all three methods target production improvements and thus should become visible in key production outputs. The levers (methods) are different, but are related to similar things.

Lean production focuses mostly on establishing methods and procedures for making continuous process improvements. Transparency is a key design rule of a lean production, but there is no need for this transparency to be generated through digital analysis. It can be generated based on material flows (or flow-related problems) or other visible indicators. Processes are continuously optimized (especially based on team or employee feedback) so that ultimately all unnecessary work is eliminated.

Manufacturing execution systems are claimed by their vendors to create an Industry 4.0 environment out of the box. I rather see the MES as an aggregation of several layers as shown in this simplified view:

  • Integration layer to machine and shop floor
  • Communication and data backbone layer in (or cloud)
  • Application layer with all functions incl. data display, decision-making and order execution (e.g., visualization, advanced planning and scheduling, dispatching)
  • Integration into ERP systems

As such, implementing an MES in the broadest sense will help to connect devices/machines vertically, gather information, make the information transparent, and execute the functions to dispatch and control running orders (and some more, depending on the MES vendor).

What is now the difference?

Lean production is a strong driver for principles in production, value-add optimization and material flow that empowers workers to optimize the production flow. Applied by itself, lean production will improve over time the way the production is managed and how the production processes are developed. As such, the desire to avoid waste will create more transparent processes by design, not just by displaying digital values. I would claim that lean production is a good foundation for every production to ensure self-optimization, waste avoidance and a mindset focused on continuous improvement.

Compared to lean production, the Introduction of an MES is much more focused on integrating IT into shop floor operations and planning (to close the digital gap between ERP and the shop floor). An MES by itself will not optimize your current production setup (material flow, value flow, workstations, etc.), but steer upcoming orders through an existing production environment in the best possible way. Over the medium term, a properly working MES with connectivity and good visibility of process indicators will also help to improve the production layout, as obvious deviations will call for action. And if the MES includes appropriate functions, it will also improve the production yield through transparency and quality analysis (CAQ).

Industry 4.0 has a much broader context, but clearly benefits from both lean production and MES implementations. Lean production itself sets good principles, orients the mindset towards process planning and material flow/value-add analysis, as well to thinking in terms of lot sizes of 1. An MES, on the other hand, will boost the connectivity of machines, data and process steps on the shop floor and provide additional transparency and steering and control capabilities, depending on which software modules are being used. Industry 4.0 and the relevant smart solutions will be applied within the framework of both the lean production and MES infrastructure. Industry 4.0 will open up additional possibilities within this framework, but it will also enlarge the framework itself and change it in the long run. Examples of additional possibilities within the framework include employee guidance tools such as pick-by-light, which are applied within the process flow that was optimized with lean production principles. The Industry 4.0 approach provides another possibility to further optimize this process step. Industry 4.0 can also enlarge the existing production framework if, for example, the product governs its route through the process based on its ID (which is then combined with the target configuration) and the available resources within the production. Such an Industry 4.0 approach would clearly extend the existing framework. You might also say that the MES framework will change over time by implementing Industry 4.0 approaches. As the cyber-physical system becomes more intelligent and makes more decisions in real time on the shop floor, the MES control functions will need to take this into count. I am confident that this will lead to more fragmented/ distributed manufacturing execution intelligence.


If you implement lean production or MES projects in your production, you do not need to see them as contradictory to Industry 4.0 approaches. Rather you can view such projects as a basis and prerequisite to flexibility and transparency. Thus these methods/tools will support the implementation of Industry 4.0 – in the case of an MES through improved connectivity and data-driven transparency.

In a first step, Industry 4.0 will provide additional solutions that can be applied within the given framework of production. Lean production is a very good guiding principle that helps to implement changes in production more successfully. A more advanced industry 4.0 concept will enlarge/change this framework, but lean production continues to be a valid optimization approach.

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