Robotic solutions: The next phase of Lean Manufacturing

arm robot

Manufacturers today face skyrocketing demand but limited resources to meet it. Many are seeking to cut waste and boost productivity through lean manufacturing in response, but these initiatives often fall short. Robotics could hold the answer.

The manufacturing sector is no stranger to robotics, but these technologies typically don’t feature in lean strategies. However, proper implementation of robotic solutions could help manufacturers achieve their goals.

What Is Lean Manufacturing?

Lean manufacturing has its roots in the Toyota Production System, a philosophy the automaker developed in the mid-20th century. At their core, lean principles maximize value while minimizing waste. This waste falls into seven categories:

  • Overproduction
  • Inventory
  • Motion
  • Defects
  • Overprocessing
  • Waiting
  • Transport

Reducing or eliminating those waste categories lets manufacturers become more profitable and provide more value to their customers. The ultimate goal is to remove anything that doesn’t please the end user. When that happens, manufacturers will become far more cost-effective and build a loyal customer base.

Lean manufacturing has evolved since its inception. Some manufacturers include an eighth waste: underutilized talent. Also, once-popular practices like just-in-time production have fallen out of favor as businesses have recognized they’re not as lean as they seem. The next shift in the philosophy could be a larger emphasis on robotics.

How Robots Enable Lean Manufacturing

Robots fall neatly in line with many lean principles when used correctly. Here’s a closer look at a few ways robotic solutions enable and expand the possibilities of lean manufacturing.

1. Minimizing Wait Times

One of the biggest advantages robots have in lean manufacturing is their speed. They can create more throughput in less time and boost profits, one of the lean’s primary goals. Shorter cycle times are just the beginning of these savings, too.

Robots don’t require shift changes and can work through the night and over weekends without rest. This eliminates changeover in some areas and helps avoid the productivity loss that comes with changing shifts, as is necessary with human workers. Studies show that shift work can reduce productivity by as much as 7.7% per worker, so altering this system can create substantial improvements.

Eliminating changeover lets manufacturers reduce the waste of waiting. Instead of winding down and starting up again daily or weekly, facilities can remain productive 24/7 with little to no downtime.

2. Increasing Resource Efficiency

Robotics also help manufacturers get more out of their materials. Robots offer more precision than humans when machining, cutting, or performing other work that consumes materials. As a result, they can produce more while using fewer resources.

This increased material efficiency also reduces energy and motion waste from recycling processes or reclaiming scrap. Modern materials are tough, with some boasting heat resistance up to 220 C, which is excellent for end products but makes reforming or recycling energy-intensive. Robots create less scrap by being more precise, so that’s less of a concern.

Manufacturers that reduce their scrap and related energy and movement become more profitable and efficient. These lean improvements would be difficult to match with manual processes.

3. Ensuring Consistent Quality

Similarly, robotic solutions can also produce a more consistent level of quality. Defects are one of the main seven wastes of lean manufacturing, and they’re likely with manual processes. Even good employees get tired, bored, distracted, and simply make mistakes, creating defects. Robots, by contrast, can produce the same result repeatedly.

A machine can’t get distracted or tired. As long as its programming and any sensors are accurate, it will deliver the same quality work every time for as long as it’s in good condition. That means fewer defects, meaning less wasted material and rework.

These systems will also learn from the defects that do arise. Error logs will suggest where mistakes come from, letting manufacturers adjust the process or machines as necessary to prevent similar problems in the future. Consequently, robotics will eliminate more issues over time.

4. Reducing Excess Movement

One less obvious benefit of robots for lean manufacturing is how they reduce movement. Machines can move in ways humans can’t, letting them transport parts or products from one area to another with less physical motion. For example, automated material movers can scale shelves vertically to retrieve packages instead of climbing a ladder or lifting them.

Robots can also reduce excess motion by handling movement-related processes while human workers focus on other tasks. Walking takes much of the time workers to spend picking items off shelves, leading to waste. A leaner approach would be to let robots pick as employees work.

While this alternative still involves motion, the movement no longer detracts from value-adding processes. As a result, this robot-based approach reduces waste, helping manufacturers embrace lean principles.

5. Improving Safety

Another easy-to-miss form of waste comes from safety incidents. Employees’ health and well-being is the most important reason to improve workplace safety, but accidents are costly and wasteful. Injuries caused the equivalent of 65 million lost days of productivity because of the resulting downtime.

Robots can prevent these incidents by automating the most dangerous tasks. The safest way to deal with a hazard is to remove it entirely; automation helps achieve that. Workers who don’t have to get close to the biggest dangers avoid these risks.

These safety improvements also reduce the lean waste of waiting and transport. Fewer injuries mean less unplanned downtime and less need to transport people to the hospital. Given how hazardous some manufacturing work can be, these enhancements can substantially impact.

Implementing Robotics in Lean Environments

Robotics can enable and expand lean manufacturing, but it’s important to realize that robots aren’t necessarily lean. Whether they improve strategies depends on their implementation.

Improper usage can even hinder lean manufacturing goals. Simply increasing production speeds and volumes just generate waste faster. With that in mind, some steps manufacturers can follow to implement robotics to improve lean environments.

1. Ensure Flexibility

Manufacturers must keep flexibility in mind when designing robotic systems. Many robots in manufacturing perform a single, highly specialized function. That’s great for efficiency but is not ideal for lean environments because it isn’t flexible.

Major supply chain disruptions now occur at least every 3.7 years, so production lines must be able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. If not, interference will produce significant losses, which isn’t lean. Manufacturers can combat this by using cobots and multifunctional robots over rigid, single-task systems.

2. Account for Human Variables

Lean manufacturing must remember human variables when implementing robots. Companies can control virtually every aspect of robotic systems to optimize their performance, but they can’t do that with people. People will inevitably introduce some uncertainty and nonuniformity, so robots must account for that.

Even heavily automated workflows can’t operate on the assumption that factors will remain consistent every time. That means robots should be able to adapt and adjust their speed and processes to match changing results from the human part of the workflow. They’ll only create more waste if they continue to operate at the same rate despite workers slowing down.

3. Analyze Costs Carefully

Manufacturers must remember that robots are expensive. That seems straightforward, but it’s easy to get wrapped up in their potential and overlook their actual ROI in a specific scenario. Companies must carefully analyze the costs and rewards of various robotic solutions to minimize disruptions and initial monetary waste.

Generally speaking, robots’ total costs typically fall within three times their price tag, so manufacturers should base their budgets on generous overestimates. They should then analyze the best places to implement machines for the fastest ROIs. These detailed cost and reward analyses will help minimize waste in the implementation process.

Robotics Can Unlock Lean Manufacturing’s Potential

Robots aren’t necessarily a lean technology, but they have significant potential for manufacturers. Companies that understand how they enable these improvements and apply them carefully can cut waste and maximize profits.

Lean manufacturing initiatives have overlooked robots’ potential in many cases, but that should change. Robotic solutions could be the next phase in lean manufacturing as more businesses recognize these benefits.