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Lean Manufacturing and Automation: A Perfect Relationship

Wed, 05/10/2006 - 7:38am
Anita LaFond, News Editor, Manufacturing.net

Most manufacturers who have adopted Lean Manufacturing techniques are pleased with the concept and its ability to provide an efficient production environment. But for those manufacturers who have an inadequate or wrong understanding of the lean philosophy, wasteful manufacturing practices are being deployed in the name of "Lean."

Are some manufacturers expecting too much from Lean Manufacturing? Lean manufacturing misconceptions can arise from the incorrect interpretation of lean concepts, or from adopting only some elements of the lean philosophy while ignoring others.

According to Kurt Greissinger, product manager for manual production systems at Bosch Rexroth Linear Motion and Assembly Technologies, having only one lean cell plant will not help a company realize the benefits that come with a more comprehensive lean manufacturing approach. A complete lean manufacturing environment should include inventory management, uninterrupted parts re-supply, product “pull” based on demand, along with other key lean concepts

"Manufacturers must understand that lean is a culture, intended for the long-term," explained Greissinger. "Lean cannot be assigned an expected completion date. If a company views lean as a 'program' with a start date and end date, their lean implementation will almost certainly fail."

Key concept: eliminating waste

If there is one basic concept to understand about lean manufacturing it is - the elimination of waste. With this concept as the core of a lean system, suggests Greissinger, both manual production processes and automated systems can play key roles in process optimization.

Several lean manufacturing concepts (such as Value Stream Mapping, Takt time calculation (customer-required production rhythm), the “Waste Walk,” 5S and 6 Sigma programs) can be deployed to help a manufacturer decide if a manual or automated system, or a combination of both, is the best approach for their facility. "But the key behind all of them," said Greissinger, "is the relentless pursuit of waste elimination."

Automated assembly lines, therefore, can be an effective enhancement to the lean manufacturing environment. But merely adding a long conveyor line between lean manufacturing work cells is not the complete answer, and can lead to a counterproductive work environment, Greissinger cautions.

"When automation is properly integrated into lean manufacturing, the conveyor can assist in eliminating the waste of transport throughout a facility," Greissinger said. Automation can also enhance the lean experience when positioning accuracy and repeatability requirements exceed those of humans.

"As long as automation does not disrupt balanced work cells and manufacturing lines, it can be successfully deployed as part of a company’s lean program," said Greissinger.

Is automation right for your facility?

Manufacturers must be sure that adopting automation into their lean manufacturing systems is the right fit for their production line. According to Greissinger, automation and lean manufacturing are ideal for applications where precision assembly is required, when operations exist over multiple shifts, when the products are high volume/low mix, or when customers demand extremely short cycle times. Even the environment can be critical if it is non-conducive to human labor (cleanroom, vacuum, cold, soldering, or other specialized processes.)

And, yes, there are applications where automation and lean manufacturing are not a good fit. "The use of automation is not beneficial for high mix/low volume products, processes that are non-repeatable or require regular adjustment and human decision making, and those that show no correlation to Takt time," said Greissinger.

Training for lean automation

When a manufacturer has decided that adding automation to the lean manufacturing environment would be beneficial, the proper training is the next area to be considered. Lean manufacturing training is important at all levels of an organization looking to adopt lean principles. At the management level, managers need to understand enough of lean’s benefits to support the process long-term.

"A champion must be identified within the company to lead the effort and begin the process," said Greissinger. "The responsible person or team must attend training and understand enough about lean to either begin implementation or to find out who to consult for help."

This is where the expertise of global assembly equipment suppliers can be leveraged to provide both lean and automated solutions. Additional information can be obtained through websites, literature, phone calls, or consultative visits.

This information can then be used to develop training programs for manufacturing and assembly line workers, who must understand the basics of lean manufacturing while accepting their new roles and responsibilities, explains Greissinger. Employees must recognize that it is their input and recommendations to the process that are critical to its success.

Once a manufacturer has identified areas of waste in their processes and justified the use of automation in their lean manufacturing system, this data should be revisited throughout the process, as cycles of learning occur, to ensure that the benefits of lean manufacturing are being realized.

A constant challenge

In conclusion, Greissinger notes that manufacturers should continue to look for sources of waste and methods for eliminating the waste. "Flexible manufacturing systems, such as those made from aluminum extrusion," said Greissinger, "offer ease of growth and re-configuration, so changes can be made as new information becomes available from a manufacturer's analysis of its lean system."

Foreign manufacturers were among the first to adopt and implement lean manufacturing principles, U.S. manufacturers can complete globally by matching up the best lean manufacturing initiatives with automated production equipment.

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