Efficiency: Lean manufacturing, integrated automation

Pressure on manufacturers to be efficient and eliminate waste continues to grow as the manufacturing industry, especially in developed countries, works to compete in the global market place.


Pressure on manufacturers to be efficient and eliminate waste continues to grow as the manufacturing industry, especially in developed countries, works to compete in the global market place. Courtesy: L&S ElectricPressure on manufacturers to be efficient and eliminate waste continues to grow as the manufacturing industry, especially in developed countries, works to compete in the global market place. For an increasing number of organizations, applying Lean Integration methodologies to automation is relieving the pressure by preventing mistakes, providing value for the customer and allowing for the agility required to remain successful in a highly competitive environment.

Benefits of Lean Integration include:

  • Lower automation costs
  • Better use of floor space
  • Simpler implementation
  • More flexibility for set and material flow
  • Operator utilization maximized · Provision of data for future solutions and continuous improvement.

Other integration approaches have been and still are being used. Most focus on part of the problem or approach problems when they happen. Other integration strategies use customized hand-coded solutions, project-by-project, with no master plan. The results can be a patchwork of solutions that costs more to maintain, is hard to change, and offers little to no flexibility—leaving an organization constantly putting out fires and struggling to play catch-up to the shifts in the environment.

Lean Integration is different. Lean organizations are agile. They have the ability to stay ahead of market shifts, the plethora of regulatory demands, and information technology (IT) complexity. Simply defined, Lean Integration is a data-driven methodology that uses metrics to ensure continuous quality and performance.

Lean methodology generates:

  • Up to 90% reduction in project lead time
  • A 50% gain in integration team productivity
  • Significant and continuous improvements in project quality
  • More cooperation across internal work teams

The focus of Lean Integration is to make independent applications work together in an ongoing interconnected system. Generally speaking, integration technology solutions break down into two solution styles: Process Integration and Data Integration. Lean Integration is a science that is repeatable, teachable, and agile—enabling the organization to change rapidly without increasing risk or compromising on quality. Reusable components, enhanced data, metrics designed to drive continuous improvement, innovation facilitated by a fact-based approach, and an engaged IT staff are the glue that holds Lean Integration together. Lean manufacturers produce more with fewer employees, less cost, and faster product to market—in large part due to advances in computer aided capabilities and communication technologies.

The result is less waste and a more streamlined production line-allowing long-term advantages for manufacturers. There are many good toolsets available-the cautionary tale is to pay close attention to the approach in order to increase the opportunity for success.

Think long-term strategy

Lean Integration is not a project process. Success requires long-term thinking in order to handle the challenges of the manufacturing process and data integration. Evaluating efficiencies early in the design stage, looking at the value stream, and the whole end-to-end process are important to the approach. In manufacturing, Lean methodology means going from factory to factory, supplier to supplier, and putting together the complete picture of how a product is built and delivered. From the vantage point of viewing the "whole," it helps determine where to automate. Automation of just one step can often result in making an entire manufacturing process Leaner.

Integrating robotics is one example. Unlike their earlier counterparts-today's robots are multi-taskers that can change tools and perform more than one function at a time—they allow manufacturing more flexibility, reliability, and repeatability than ever before. Machines and devices can exchange information over the Internet with no human intervention, connecting the factory floor with the entire organization. Sensors track and gather comprehensive detailed data throughout the process and even assist with analysis to help determine improvement options.

Striking a balance The methodology used to deliver the Lean objective strikes a balance between the organizational culture and technical delivery needs. Many aspects are considered such as complexity of the problem(s), people involved, and size of the project. Implemented methodologies work best when adaptable to the project and the general advice is not to get bogged down in details, documentation, and reporting.

A couple consistent tips rise up when evaluating whether to implement automation in a Lean strategy:

  • Before investing test the hypothesis. Model the improvements first and check to be sure they prevent the problem.
  • Look for flexibility in automation design features to provide the greatest opportunity for making improvements.

Communication technology impacts all areas of the design. Now engineers have broad access to Internet content and the advantage of using and sharing information.

Integration between the factory floor and the rest of the organization is an effective way to implement the latest technologies. Developed countries still hold the advantage in Lean methodologies, but emerging countries are catching up. Adaptability and flexibility will be critical to maintain the competitive edge. Lean is about improvement. If the technology is not flexible, improvement is difficult.

For engineers, that may mean not getting it right the first time around. Lean allows engineers flexibility to modify, adjust, and expand.

Process engineer challenges

Implementing a software development methodology can be a challenge depending on the complexity of the project and number of people involved. If methodology is too light, results can be unpredictable. A too heavy methodology risks burying staff in details, documentation, and reports. Methodologies must allow an organization to breathe, stretch, and bend with the project needs. Process engineers:

1. Evaluate and describe software development methodology

2. Work with project managers to implement the methodology into the software development plan

3. Implement the methodology

4. Assess it and make improvements along the way

5. Provide help in technical risk management

6. Stay on top of software process improvement methods and tools.

Integrated Automation is worth the challenge because it supports efficiency across the organization and can even be performed remotely; pointing out how valuable the latest advancements in communication technology have enhanced Integrated Automation.

Incremental integration allowed

Lean Integration requires a number of prerequisites before taking the plunge. There are two styles of Lean Implementation: top down and bottom up. Top down usually provides faster results because it is led by top-level executives, has a strong clearly set strategy, and measurable outcomes. The bottom-up approach is sometimes preferred because it is less disruptive to staff, implementation takes a slower approach, and is headed by managers or staff leaders.

Any large organization that uses information to run their business is a candidate for Lean automation. Here are a few points that may help manufacturers with decision-making:

1. Senior executive support is critical to pull buy-in from the rest of the organization.

2. A committed practice leader is required, who may not be a Lean expert but has the skill sets to become the organization expert.

3. The Lead Director must be enthusiastic and committed to championing Lean.

4. The corporate culture is receptive to cross-organizational collaboration.

5. The organization is committed to a long-term, sustainable strategy.

Implementing Lean automation can engage and motivate staff because the process continues to involve bottom-up input. Innovation and trying new ideas are promoted, and staff work together in cross-functional teams on integration projects. Authority is given to make immediate changes when and where needed.

Overall, work is more centralized, and communication among individuals and teams is enhanced by integration of Lean Automation. For large top-heavy organizations this can lead to better collaboration, fewer conflicting goals, and clearer, more defined goals. Budget decisions are also strengthened, and delays caused by multiple handoffs between teams are minimized.

The future of Lean Integration

What will the next era look like in manufacturing? One thing is clear; it will continue to evolve as a vital source of innovation. Old responses will continue to fade as future manufacturing environments emerge. By 2025, a new global consuming class will create a wave of new market opportunities. Existing markets will have demands for more product diversity and after-sale services. Innovations in materials and processes like nanomaterial, 3-D printing, and advanced robotics will drive new productivity across industries and continents.

3-D Printing Industry experts believe 3-D printing, also called additive manufacturing, will revolutionize the manufacturing industry. Possibilities are as expansive as the imagination-from simple replacement of an aircraft bracket or work tools, to using bio-materials for replacing a failed organ or body part.

A production line with 3-D printing technology is a Lean concept because it can reduce the cost of manufacturing waste unlike traditional manufacturing that carves objects out of blocks of material. It will also reduce production time, save costs, and offer customization capabilities. For example, Invisalign, a company that makes clear orthodontic retainer alternatives to metal braces, offers a series of removable, customized retainers. The retainers gradually realign the teeth and are changed every couple weeks-without 3-D printing this orthodontic advancement would not be possible.

In the future, competition among low-wage competitors will still be formidable for manufacturers in developed countries. Lean Integration and use of ever more advanced communication technology will allow the emergence of a new networked enterprise that uses "big data" and analytics to make quick responses to changing conditions. Education and a highly skilled labor market will be critical along with agile managers who understand the complexities of the global market chains.

As the continuum shifts and integrated automation becomes a way of life, changes in thinking will evolve as organizations:

  • Learn Lean techniques
  • Involve the work force with the design team
  • Question automation assumptions
  • Implement Lean solutions first then automate
  • Establish continuous improvement thinking.

Something for everyone

Integrated automation has something for everyone, and job growth is possible. Lean Integration is a highly valued business skill. IT professionals report seeing successful integration teams grow from a handful to 100 or more as the scope of Lean Integration expands in the organization.

For the enterprise owner the benefits of reduced costs, faster-to-market, increased profits, and an overall stronger organization, not just for the short-term but long into the future, can reduce stress and increase the competitive advantage without compromising on quality. The customer always benefits from reduced costs and faster service. The environment benefits from more efficiency and less waste.

Einstein makes the Lean connection

Einstein said, "A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks it should be." Integration Automation is about revealing the "what is" of the whole end-to-end process by evaluating the efficiencies early in the design, looking at the value stream, and implementing the methodology. It involves all participants in the value chain into the process. Most important, Lean Integration is sustainable. The future is brighter for manufacturing because of Lean Integration.

- David Manney is a marketing administrator at L&S Electric. This article originally appeared on L&S Electric Watts New Blog. L&S Electric Inc. is a CFE Media content partner.

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