Toyota manufacturing plant

In Toyota's North American manufacturing facilities, robotic welders like these work together with the automated and manual processes as part of the company's technology-infused lean production system.

Lean's High-Tech Makeover

This is the new face of lean in the age of advanced manufacturing: a bustling mix of technologies and automation tools designed to streamline processes and eliminate pools of costly waste still untapped by traditional lean efforts alone.

Editor's Note: Toyota's Tim Platt will present a keynote address at the 2014 IW Best Plants conference in Milwaukee, May 5-7.

At the Lafayette, Ind., Toyota Motor (IW 1000/8) plant, amid the buzz of automated guided vehicles scurrying parts across the floor and under the bright light of electric andon displays, a new Camry frame rolls into the assembly shop.

As it crosses the threshold, the Assembly Line Control system automatically sparks online, sending out a volley of notifications across the factory and across the supply chain to arrange delivery of the right assemblies in the right sequence from the right suppliers at the right time in a high-tech ballet of one of the leanest production processes ever seen—all without a worker lifting a finger.

See Also: Manufacturing Industry Technology News & Trends

This is the new face of lean in the age of advanced manufacturing: a bustling mix of technologies and automation tools designed to streamline processes and eliminate pools of costly waste still untapped by traditional lean efforts alone.

The Tech Tools of Lean

Tim Platt, vice president of information systems at Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing, North America, is no stranger to the gains high-tech tools can offer lean efforts.

"Technology may permit a much more complex, or 'advanced,' manufacturing process to occur than was possible in the past," he says. "The development of new bar-coding capabilities, new RFID technologies and mobile devices bring new tools to the toolbox for potential utilization."

As these new technologies are developed, he explains, they present new opportunities to aid in the deployment of the legendary Toyota Production System (TPS) that started the world on the lean journey long before any of those tools existed.

This is an unusual admission from a lean company. There is a long, troubled history between technology and lean philosophies punctuated by decades of push vs. pull, automation vs. manual labor debates that generally prevent this kind of open bipartisanship.

A Balanced Approach to Lean

Toyota seems to stand above the fight, however, offering a common-sense approach that has defined the company from the start.

Throughout the company's advanced North American manufacturing facilities, this approach has culminated in a harmonious dance of robotics, e-kanbans and automated business processes all working together in TPS.

"Lean in an advanced manufacturing operation facility operates much as it does in a simpler facility, there are just more pieces that are involved in the choreography," Platt explains. "Just as the dance steps for a single dancer are similar to that of an entire troupe, the processes in an advanced facility are similar to simpler operations. However, additional steps must be taken to plan the process and to ensure that all components operate properly and in sync with each other."

As the processes grow in complexity, he says, it is only natural to employ more technology, and the company has adopted them as such.

"The key is that technologies remain tools that are used to create a better overall condition given the principles of the Toyota Production System," he explains.

This approach flies in the face of lean purists and techies alike—both of whom like to claim credit for any efficiency gain.

However, as Roman Bukary, general manager of manufacturing and wholesale distribution for the cloud-based ERP provider NetSuite explains, Toyota's simple integration of the two sides may offer insight into some of the defining aspects of advanced manufacturing.

"Advanced manufacturing means that the basic concept of how we manufacture things is changing," he says. From his perspective, in today's global manufacturing environment, manufacturers are leveraging technology more than ever because, as Platt explains, it is simply needed more than ever.

This has changed the basic dynamic of the manufacturing environment, bringing IT firmly into the mix for day-to-day activities.

"IT," Bukary says, "isn't an afterthought; it is core to manufacturers' business because they can't survive without it."

As we move down this course into the high-tech, automated, streamlined days of advanced manufacturing, this point really comes clear: As technology edges further into the production cycle and takes on more critical tasks, the line between technology and lean is blurring.

"Is lean a philosophy or is it a technology?" Bukary asks. "The answer, of course, is yes. It's both—you cannot do one without the other and you cannot have the second without a good underpinning of the first."

To drive home the point, he adds, in today's advanced manufacturing world, "Fundamentally, lean is a philosophy that's not possible without technology."

Technology for Technology's Sake

This doesn't mean that manufacturers need to chase down every whiz-bang new piece of equipment that comes on the market, Bukary warns. Far from it, in fact.

That is a point critical to Toyota's movement into high-tech lean.

"One of the basic principles at Toyota is that we don't implement technology for technology's sake," Platt explains. "We implement technology when it is appropriate to do so to aid in the use of the Toyota Production System."

Because that system was founded using manual methods—and because there are still plenty of benefits to those methods —the company strives to find the optimal combination of manual and automated practices, carefully weighing the benefits of each.

"Both extremes and several hybrid models are considered before settling on the approach," Platt says. "The aim is to implement the Toyota Production System and technology is just one of the tools to aid in that objective."

He likens the proliferation of tools available to meet these objectives to the multitude of tools and options available at the local hardware store.

"There are many different tools to place a screw into a piece of wood," he explains. "Some of these might even be considered 'advanced' tools that allow the repeating of the process much more rapidly or with less strain on the operator. Likewise, there are more technology tools available to us to implement the tenets of the Toyota Production System."

With this great mass of choices before us, he says, it becomes critical to devise an evaluation process to choose the best tool and, just as critically, if a tool is even necessary.

Technological Hazards

Bill Waddell, lean consultant and author, knows this dilemma very well.

"I was really struck by something that Motorola people told me many years ago in the early days when they were inventing Six Sigma," he recalls. "Their mantra was, if you automate something without improving the quality or taking the waste out of it first, you'll find that all you're doing is managing to move useless and defective stuff around your business at speeds you never thought possible."

The point, he says, is that the first step to any IT project—whether it be implementing new tools or automating new processes—is to first determine exactly what you want to do, and after you have that laid out, then you can look at whether automation can facilitate it.

But, he says, you can't lead with IT.

"It's important to understand that you can't buy lean," he says. "If all it took was buying a software package, everybody would buy it. The same with automated equipment—if just buying a couple of robots made you lean, everybody would go out and buy them. There's a whole lot more to it than that."

Waddell is admittedly quite skeptical of IT's infiltration of the lean zone—it's something he has picked up from a long time in the trenches on either side of the divide.

"I spent the first part of my career putting in MRP and ERP systems and then I spent the next 20 years taking them back out," he jokes. "I understand these systems, it's my background. I lived and believed in that world for a long time and I came to understand just how wasteful it can be."

That skepticism helps highlight an important point: over-dependence on technology presents some relevant concerns to the lean process and in some respects may be contrary to the philosophy at its core.

According to Platt, "One of the potential hazards of implementing technology is that the workers may rely on the technology and fail to understand the intricacies of the work."

"Toyota thrives because of the knowledge and strength of its team members and their kaizen thinking," he explains. "We must be cautious not to lose this advantage by permitting knowledge to be lost. If technology is the most effective means, then special care must be taken to ensure good process knowledge is sustained."

For this reason, Waddell notes, many companies have an outright prohibition on IT solutions while doing kaizen events or continuous-improvements efforts.

"Lean in an advanced manufacturing facility operates much as it does in a simpler facility; there are just more pieces that are involved in the choreography." - Tim Platt, vice president of information systems at Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing, North America

"I don't want to have everything and every problem in the factory just become another IT to-do list where we just automate it and the problem goes away," he says. "That tends to be the lazy way out for people. They don't really think through how necessary it is or be really creative to come up with a new solution."

There is, however, a case to be made for IT-led lean projects.

Ryan King, director of IT packaging machinery manufacturer ARPAC, for example, has firmly integrated his department into the basic process-improvement efforts of the company's Schiller Park, Ill., facility.

Under his direction, ARPAC recently streamlined its kanban system to feed directly from the workers using materials on the plant floor to the suppliers that provide them, completely bypassing the usual bureaucracy in between.

"What we've done at ARPAC with the IT department is we've said forget the buyer, forget the master scheduler, forget everything interfering with these processes," he says. "Now, if the guy on the shop floor who is actually doing the building gets to the point in the process where he needs to order a new part, instead of having him fill out requisition forms and take them to the buyer, all he has to do is swipe a barcode and it creates the purchase order."

The result of this change is rather impressive. With the old system, it took between 20 and 30 minutes to complete a kanban, a process repeated about 800 times month. That means the automated system cuts out up to 400 hours of high-cost office work every month, or 4,800 hours per year.

"The old days of the IT person having to sit on the sidelines are gone," he says. "Today, the IT people should not just be in the room, they should be running the new process improvements. That's where IT is going. It's not going to be a plant manager anymore. No, the IT has to be the one to go there and say, 'I want to do X, Y and Z and this is how I'm going to do it.'"

Finding a Balance

In the end, the whole issue comes down to waste, Waddell says.

"The objective of lean is the elimination of non-value added waste," he explains. "And of course waste is defined as anything that doesn't create value for customers."

So the question is really whether technology adds value to the manufacturing process or, as Waddell says is often the case, it becomes just another source of wasted energy and capital.

For Toyota and advanced manufacturers like it, technology seems to clearly add value and help efficiency, but that isn't necessarily the case for everyone.

"There's no absolute," Waddell stresses. "Do these systems help you get lean? They can, but only if you really know what you are trying to do to improve the processes. If all you're doing is taking your existing processes and automating them, then you are back to the Motorola adage: You're just moving information around in a very slick manner."

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