ADAM robots by RMT Robotics

At Otis Technology, Automation Boosts Lean Efforts

Sept. 11, 2012
Robotics helps free employees to focus their attention on value-adding activities.

Walk into Otis Technology’s manufacturing facility in Lyons Falls, N.Y., and a couple of things quickly strike you. One is the cleanliness of the production floor, a point of pride whose origins date back to well before the company became formally acquainted with lean manufacturing and 5S in 2009.

"Our facility is probably as clean as some pharmaceutical companies," says Harold Philbrick, director of operations at Otis Technology, which manufactures gun-cleaning systems.

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Also hard to miss are the autonomous mobile robots that scoot about the manufacturing space, seemingly without a human assist. Programmed to play music as they move about—anything from bagpipes to the Zac Brown Band—the robots deliver to and retrieve materials from employees working on the production floor.

"They are a pretty big hit with guests," Philbrick says.

More importantly, the ADAM robots by RMT Robotics free up time for employees to make product rather than spend it in search of materials. They also illustrate one way in which automation is aiding the manufacturer’s lean journey.

Minimizing Material Handling

"The mindset here is we try to identify and eliminate nonvalue-added [activities]," explains Philbrick.  Lean manufacturing tools such as value-stream mapping, kanban and 5S help. The director of operations outlines efforts made to consolidate the manufacturing footprint, minimizing both material handling as well as the time it takes to perform operations within workstations.

Where nonvalue-added actions can't be eliminated, the manufacturer considers automation. For example, several years ago, Otis Technology performed a few calculations and concluded that manufacturing operations lost about 90 hours of productive time per day to employees walking around in search of, retrieving or waiting on materials to do their jobs. It averaged to about one hour per person per day, Philbrick says.

Keeping a day's worth of production materials stored at workstations didn't resolve the issue because that amount of inventory still resulted in the need to do some searching, plus it added clutter to the equation.

The introduction of the ADAM robots drove big gains in this area. When an employee needs materials, he—or more likely, she (85% of production-floor workers are female)—simply presses a call button at the workstation, which alerts the robot of the need for assistance. Once the operator presents the ADAM with its task, the robot autonomously navigates to the required destination to retrieve materials and deliver them where required.

As a result, Otis Technology now keeps a more manageable hour's worth of inventory at the workstations. And because the robots deliver bins at approximately waist-level, they have helped reduce ergonomics issues related to workers bending and carrying weights. Equally importantly, the robots relieve employees so they can perform value-adding activities.

Additional Technology Assists

Otis Technology’s lean efforts get additional technology assists. For example:

  • An automated storage and retrieval system with 500 pallet positions has helped consolidate the location of inventory, without increasing the amount of inventory.
  • An automation solution eliminated what had been a bottleneck in the manufacturing process, as well as difficult to perform. While those specific jobs were eliminated, the employees were reassigned to other jobs where help was needed.
  • Automated chip collection was added to a CNC machine, eliminating a nonvalue-adding but necessary task that had been performed manually. Automated oil filtration also allows the manufacturer to recycle oil.

Philbrick notes that the ultimate goal at his facility is to eliminate waste, not simply automate it, and that is where continuing efforts are aimed.

The combination of lean and technology has reaped strong results at Otis Technology. On-time delivery, which averaged in the mid-80s in January 2009, has averaged 99.8% since January 2010. And inventory turns have increased by about 96% since 2009.

About the Author

Jill Jusko

Bio: Jill Jusko is executive editor for IndustryWeek. She has been writing about manufacturing operations leadership for more than 20 years. Her coverage spotlights companies that are in pursuit of world-class results in quality, productivity, cost and other benchmarks by implementing the latest continuous improvement and lean/Six-Sigma strategies. Jill also coordinates IndustryWeek’s Best Plants Awards Program, which annually salutes the leading manufacturing facilities in North America.

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