Digitalean at work: varieties of lean models in digital automotive factories in Italy

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Gerpisa colloquium, Paris (2021)


A growing literature on the impact of new technologies, bundled under the heading of Industry 4.0, on the transformation of the work process is emerging (among other see Cirillo et al., 2020, Pardi et al, 2020, Krzywdzinski, 2020, Jurgens, Butollo et al. 2019, Albano et al., 2018, Pfeiffer, 2016).
The series of studies, differently from the standard wisdom now popularised in economics, have problematised the duality between routine versus non routine working activities, questioning the predictions of a massive displacement of manual workers due to the new wave of automation and digitization.
Largely based on an anti-deterministic perspective on technology and stressing the role of the combination of technological and organizational changes as drivers of transformation in terms of human-machine relationship, Cirillo et al. (2020) hardly detect any sign of emergence of revolutionary change inside automotive factories adopting I4.0 technologies. In general, organizational changes accompanied with the adoption of I4.0 technologies find a pattern of continuity with the lean production paradigm, and the I4.0 strategy, fostering ‘leanness’ in the production system, hardly represents a paradigm shift. In fact, the ‘new’ I4.0 tension towards customization, reduction of inventories, elimination of bottlenecks, tracking of errors, intensification and saturation of working time, and in general of process and organizational innovation, overlap remarkably with the first wave of lean production begun in late 1970s. Similar reasoning are put forward by Cetrulo and Nuvolari (2019) and Pardi et al. (2020), who consider the current I4.0 wave more of a hype than a revolution, fostered by national industrial policies aimed at bolstering digital manufacturing. More importantly, rather than towards automation, I4.0 seems to be oriented towards digitalisation and interconnection. Indeed, what Cirillo et al. (2020) emphasize is that more complex processes in terms of tasks-standardization rather than tasks-substitution are ongoing in the manufacturing sector.
In favour of reducing anxiety versus automation, Krzywdzinski (2020) argues that the number of robots per worker is not a very telling figure of the degree of technological change in place in automotive factories, which are instead more directed towards the achievement of digitalisation. For example, assembly line robots declined, as a fraction of overall industrial robots in Germany between 1993 and 2015, while their stock remained fairly constant during the same period. Notably, studies based on field-work analyses are in general able to detect heterogeneous impacts of automation at the department level. Therefore, while welding, machining, and material handling were already highly automatized in 1990s, labour disappeared neither from assembly lines, nor from quality control and testing units. In this respect, the human-based component inside factories still remains predominant. Additionally, by looking at the share of production (blue-collar) workers over total employment in the automotive industry, the author finds that country heterogeneity is rather strong (comparing Germany, Japan, and U.S.) and that the trend is not uniquely declining.
While comparison across countries starts to be undertaken (Colombari et al. 2020, Jurgens and Krzywdzinski, 2016), relatively less attention has been devoted to study how heterogeneity unfolds within the same sector of activity (between-firms), within firms (between departments), and finally, across products. This paper aims at filling the existing gap in the literature addressing the existence of a varieties of lean-oriented organizational models inside however a common trend of digitization across factories.
With the notion of digitalean we intend the conflicting tension between the organization of the production process with objectives oriented toward Just in time and Total Quality Management, the standard lean principles put forward under Toyotism, and the organisation of the work process, which under Toyotism should be mostly based on ample space of autonomy, local decision-making processes, and possibility of intervention. If the conflict between the two spheres has been already identified in the literature (Vidal 2017) with lean-enough models, the coupling of varieties of digitization and lean models still requires to be investigated.
Hereby, levering on the results of two field-work analyses conducted under a collaboration with the Fondazione Sabattini and the metal workers trade union FIOM in the period 2016-2018, we are able to put together an ensemble of factories marked by processes of technological and organizational transformations. Our research design allows to address different sources of heterogeneity: within-sector, within-firm, and across products. In fact we span from pivotal adopters of I4.0 technologies located in one of the most digital-advanced area in the Italian automotive sector, Emilia Romagna, to factories belonging to the ex FCA group, now Stellantis, located across the country. Additionally, our research design allows to perform: (i) between-firm comparisons across heterogeneous automotive products, (ii) between-product comparisons (e.g. producers of luxury cars, producers of mass consumer cars, producers of commercial vehicles and material handling equipment), (iii) between-ownership comparisons to highlight peculiarities of managerial practices.
According to our results, first, differently from an archetypical total lean model, a structural tension between leanness in the production system and leanness in the organisation of the work process exists in all studied workplaces. Second, far from an ideal type of a pure digital factory, strong forms of within-firm heterogeneity, in terms of digitalisation processes across departments, is found. Finally, what workers do in terms of the final assembled products mediates both technological and organisational readiness. Indeed, the assembled product, whether being of a mass consumerism type, a luxury, or a transportation equipment, enacts more ore less manifested forms of attachment/refusal of workers' vis-à-vis corporate identity.


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