Both manufacturing automation and lean manufacturing have the same goals: to satisfy customers at the lowest possible cost. To achieve these goals, both disciplines address removing low-value or nonvalue activities, reducing waste and producing predictable quality. Yet even many accomplished manufacturing professionals have trouble reconciling the two disciplines. Here are a few benefits that capitalize on the synergies of automation and lean manufacturing.
Automation is an excellent way to get rid of waste. Properly set up and programmed equipment produces parts within tight tolerances and can provide automatic alerts if the process veers toward upper- or lower-tolerance limits. This eliminates scrap and rework — two of the gravest sins of lean manufacturing. Even the most highly skilled operators cannot match the efficiency and repeatability of automation on routine or semi-routine processes. In addition, automation can lessen wasted motion in two ways:
Connecting equipment to business systems helps reduce the effort necessary for reporting production status. By removing the need to report operation completions, scrap or material usage required for accounting or inventory management systems, the internet of things (IoT) enables your operators to focus on more productive work that can help satisfy customer needs.
Manufacturing companies in developed countries struggle to stay competitive with low-labor-cost areas. Automation lowers the number of people or shifts needed to accomplish the same level of throughput, as well as lessens the need for material handling equipment such as forklifts.
Even more groundbreaking is the emergence of collaborative robotics. This new generation of automation is designed to operate side by side with human workers and is usually optimized to support agile production. According to a recent report from ABI Research, the market for collaborative robotics will reach $1 billion by 2020, amounting to more than 40,000 units per year. These versatile robots have a relatively low initial cost and can provide a rapid return on investment.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2.9 million workplace injuries were reported in 2015, which equates to about three injuries per 100 full-time employees. Of these accidents, more than 238,000 were falls, trips and slips. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that companies pay nearly $1 billion per week in workers' compensation alone.
Using warehouse automation can help keep employees safe, since most will not need to enter the automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) area or even walk through the warehouse as often except during maintenance. Thus, the incidence of falls in an automated warehouse will more than likely be lower.
Managing inventory is one of the most vital and yet wasteful tasks in manufacturing. No production facility can hope to satisfy its customers or operate effectively if its inventory is not accurate and controlled. One of the most effective ways to ensure inventory accuracy is to automate the picking and put-away processes. Automated equipment can greatly reduce lost or misplaced materials and help ensure accurate lot tracking, which can decrease obsolescence or scrap due to expiration or spoilage.
Far more than simple workflow or informational alerts, today's office automation solutions approach the level of artificial intelligence (AI). They are capable of handling routine tasks and streamlining business processes, ranging from accounts payable and production dispatching to prioritizing sales orders for shipment. This can provide consistent quality and eliminate the waste of printing and filing paperwork while ensuring that workers have the bandwidth to attend to high-value activities.
Automation is a growing presence in manufacturing and can come in many forms. By capitalizing on its synergy with lean manufacturing, you can embrace the tenets of lean and reap the many benefits.
John Hinchey is the vice president of sales at Westfalia Technologies, a leading provider of logistics solutions for plants, warehouses and distribution centers.