Will Automation Help Improve Lean Manufacturing


The fourth industrial revolution has made robotics more central than ever to manufacturing. But not every manufacturer has faith in the ability of automation to improve their factory. Proponents of lean manufacturing have been traditionally skeptical of automation’s ability to improve manufacturing — and some even consider the two opposed by definition.

Now, new developments in robotics — like the application of artificial intelligence (AI) and big data analysis — may make lean manufacturing and automation more compatible than ever. But will automation improve lean manufacturing?

Why Automation Isn’t Guaranteed to Be Lean

There are a few different definitions of “lean manufacturing” — in this case, we’ll broadly define it as manufacturing processes that do more with less. Lean manufacturing reduces waste, knocks out downtime and tries to make factory processes as lean as possible in terms of time and resources.

While lean manufacturing can drive down costs, the focus is more on improving customer satisfaction and profitability than cutting back on money spent. If a new process costs more — but produces enough product or reduces enough waste to offset the cost — then it can reasonably be called a lean process.

Under this definition, some experts consider automation and lean manufacturing incompatible philosophically — primarily because of how lean manufacturers define “waste.”

If you’re familiar with lean manufacturing, you likely know about the seven types of waste defined under lean manufacturing — or eight, depending on who you ask. When it comes to smart robotics and automation, two types of lean manufacturing waste are the most relevant — waiting and overproduction.

In automated, non-lean factories, robotic failure can cause serious downtime. When a robot is damaged, it typically can’t be replaced quickly. Instead, it will need to be repaired. Depending on how the factory line is organized, this can cause huge losses — both wasted energy and wasted time as employees are forced to either wait, or reroute production and work around the failure.

At the same time, some smart factories are experimenting with predictive overproduction, where historical sales data is used to make educated guesses about production goals. At the same time, automated systems can order production to start even when there are no current orders. If not properly implemented, the result can easily be serious overproduction that never finds an order.

How to Combine Robotics and Lean Manufacturing

Just as automation isn’t guaranteed to be lean, it doesn’t have to be wasteful either. It is possible for manufacturers to marry robotics and lean manufacturing — in fact, automation might just improve lean manufacturing in some cases.

New, syncretic forms of lean manufacturing — like the lean robotics methodology — are already being pioneered by tech-savvy manufacturers. Like lean manufacturing, lean robotics is a people-first approach, despite the name. Lean robotics prioritizes the use of collaborative robots — sometimes referred to as cobots — which work alongside human workers to make processes more efficient. Unlike traditional robotics, no workers should be displaced by the use of cobots. Instead, cobots free up time for workers by streamlining processes and providing assistance to employees.

Under lean robotics, even lean robots that aren’t collaborative are designed with safety and worker usability in mind.

The technology is especially useful in industries facing worker shortages — like welding, where a shortage of nearly 290,000 workers is expected by 2020. There, collaborative robots can bolster the existing welding staff, boosting productivity and reducing need for new hires.

Lean robotics is just one example of how manufacturers can combine lean manufacturing with automation. Other possibilities include using multi-application robots that can be easily transported or outfitted with many different tools allowing them to slot into different phases or parts of the manufacturing process.

In other factories lean manufacturing has been combined with automation. Some robots are using advancements in vision technology to function as quality control. Previously, human workers were needed to fill this role, which could easily become tedious, attention-demanding and fast-paced. When this process is automated, those workers become freed up to complete other tasks that can’t be completed by machines.

It’s also possible to use new robotics technology to avoid the kinds of waste — in the lean manufacturing sense — typically associated with automation.

One way that manufacturers can beat the waste of waiting is by using robotics with predictive maintenance technology — advanced robotics systems that use big data and AI to collect data and predict when a robot will need maintenance before mechanical failure happens. This technology could save manufacturers on downtime costs and help lean manufacturers interested in automation avoid robot-induced waiting.

Robots equipped with AI can also be less likely to produce defective products by adding automated quality control processes — like the vision systems mentioned above. This may be especially attractive for lean manufacturers, who are especially keen on avoiding waste in the form of defective products.

Lean Robotics and Manufacturing Without Waste

The manufacturing sector is being reshaped by automation powered by new computer technology like AI and big data. As a result, manufacturers are turning again to new developments in robotics to build better factories.

Automation isn’t guaranteed to work with lean manufacturing. However, with a little bit of work, automation can make lean manufacturing even more effective. New philosophies of manufacturing — like lean robotics — provide useful road maps for factory owners and manufacturers who are interesting in combining lean manufacturing and automation.

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