Lean production and automation

Select the best production platform for Lean operations.


The intelligence, flexibility, and efficiency of today’s production platforms—from manual production cells to full automation solutions—offer new options for companies that want to use technology to become Lean. Images courtesy of Bosch RexrothToday’s competitive global markets challenge manufacturers in all industries to constantly seek efficiencies to stay competitive. Factors such as mass-customization, small lot sizes, and demands for extremely rapid turnaround drive manufacturers to become much more flexible.The need to maximize manufacturing return on investment (ROI) has never been stronger; you need to get the most out of your processes, your systems, your equipment, and your people.

Lean manufacturing has proven to be a powerful, fundamental way to achieve these goals. By providing a systematic way to identify waste and remove it, Lean manufacturing is more than just an extra tool in your manufacturing toolbox. It’s a way of life. To be good at Lean, companies must commit to it and pursue Lean techniques vigorously.

That includes making intelligent decisions about how and when to use automation technology to become—and to stay—Lean. At its most elemental level, Lean manufacturing is "pull" production, driven by customer or marketplace demand. Lean production optimizes all of your enterprise’s flow in response to that demand: material flow, people flow, and information flow.

Is it possible to use automation and still be “Lean”? Newly emerging manufacturing platforms that utilize mechatronics concepts; powerful, intelligent, connected controls; and even wireless technologies are changing the equation by creating an entirely new range of capabilities.

These new capabilities add truly demand-driven flexibility to the traditional automation advantages of precision and speed, whether in semi-automated or fully automated production environments, and can even help to eliminate wasteful processes in assembly operations that are mostly manual.

Finding the right level of automation can enhance your Lean initiatives in previously unconsidered ways, giving you new ways to reduce wasted time, wasted energy, and wasted effort when used in the right applications.

Identifying waste to optimize flow

It takes more than tying together a few U-shaped or L-shaped work cells to become Lean. Lean is a philosophy that drives efforts to reduce waste throughout the manufacturing process. It’s a guide for decision-making—and to make the right decisions about eliminating waste, it’s crucial that you step back and consider how materials flow through the manufacturing process.

Optimizing the flow of material will guide the decisions you make about how best to eliminate waste. To get an idea of how much optimization might be needed, take a quick waste walk and think about addressing the seven types of waste normally identified by Lean practitioners:

  • Overproduction
  • Waiting
  • Defects and errors
  • Excess motion and movement
  • Excess inventory
  • Inefficient processes
  • Excess transportation.

These classic types of waste can be seen on a daily basis in many production environments—including those with a high degree of manual production. Further analysis has identified two other types of systemic waste that Lean can address:

Talent: This can be a consequence of poor or inadequate training, or an operator interface that is poorly designed and creates an opportunity for operator error.

Energy: Many production platforms are not designed to be as energy-efficient as they could be; Rexroth’s 4EE for energy efficiency, an internal systematic approach, identifies four levers—energy system design, efficient components, energy on demand, and energy recovery—that can be used to eliminate wasteful use of energy in manufacturing.

A very effective Lean tool to help you get to the root of waste within your manufacturing systems is a “value stream map.” Create a value stream map and identify waste wherever it occurs in your system. (A simple Internet search can help you find templates and resources for value stream mapping.) And if you don’t want to get this involved, ask your operators about wasteful processes. Because they’re close to the process, they often know right where to start fixing things.

With this information, you can begin making effective, intelligent decisions about how to eliminate the waste you find, including determining the right level of automation to use to help accomplish that goal.

This decision matrix demonstrates how to choose the right Lean production technologies by assessing workflow in terms of production volume and product mix, and to chart these factors against different types of production solutions. Courtesy: Bosch Rexroth Lean production system matrix

Lean production provides the optimum framework for efficient competitive production, based on a philosophy of comprehensive waste avoidance. To become Lean, manufacturers need to attack waste everywhere by establishing processes—and using the right kind of production systems—that enable you to:

Reduce inventory

  • Eliminate downtime
  • Reduce space requirements
  • Avoid errors and inefficient processes
  • Intelligently monitor and track production
  • Avoid overproduction
  • Shorten transport routes.

A helpful approach to choosing the right production systems is to think in terms of production volume and product mix, and to chart these factors in a matrix. One matrix that Bosch Rexroth has created plots the four broad types of most commonly used production systems: manual production systems, modular production systems with some automation, standalone automated production cells, and fully automated production lines.

This useful decision matrix can help you choose the right Lean production technologies, by assessing your flow in terms of production volume and product mix, and charting these factors against different types of production solutions.

Depending on where your situation falls on the Lean production matrix, the level of automation you need may range from no automation at all (manual production) to fully automated production.

In the most unpredictable assembly environment—low volumes, high product mix—manual assembly is usually the reasonable choice because you’d never recoup your investment in automated equipment. It’s a dynamic set of considerations, with no one right answer.

In some assembly operations, manual production is augmented by automated intelligence: A new generation of cordless nut runners for assembly operations has an integrated controller that temporarily stores the results of every nut tightened, and then transmits that data via Wi-Fi to a receiving station and the production platform’s quality-tracking system.

This ensures, through automated data capture, total tracking of the quality of manual production through integrated intelligence, while at the same time eliminating the need for redundant, manual, post-operation checking.

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