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Lean and Robots: Dynamic Duo or Disruptive Disaster?

June 18, 2019
For many, the conversation about lean manufacturing and automation frequently is reduced to man versus machine. The reality is far more nuanced.

Lean—be it lean manufacturing or the lean enterprise—has long been an oddly divisive topic of conversation, right down to its very definition.

The folks who coined the term in the late 1980s developed a set of lean characteristics, starting with keeping the end (value to the customer) in mind. Key principles included removing waste from value streams, developing continuous product flow and ultimately driving down manufacturing cycle times to more rapidly respond to customers' changing needs and wants. Moreover, the people who engage with the value stream are active participants in its continuous improvement.

Nevertheless, a solid percentage of manufacturers see lean primarily as a cost-reduction strategy. While reduced costs may be an outcome of lean improvements, cost reduction is not at its heart. Another misconception? That lean manufacturing applies only to high-volume, low-mix production. Follow the origins of lean back far enough (think Toyota) and you will discover that the need to produce small quantities of many product variations were a driver of what became the vaunted Toyota Production System.

Then there is lean and automation, including robots. For many, a conversation about lean manufacturing and automation frequently is reduced to man versus machine—with headcount reduction as the end game.

"There is one group of folks who feels like any sort of automation or robotics is evil and violates the principles of lean. There's also the other end of the spectrum that says robots are going to make lean irrelevant going forward," says Jim Morgan, a senior advisor, product and process development, at the Lean Enterprise Institute.

Of course, the reality is more nuanced.

"Both arguments, at least for me, don't work. The premise of it being antagonistic is problematic," says Morgan, who is co-author (with Jeffrey Liker) of The Toyota Product Development System, as well as the recently released Designing the Future. An engineer, Morgan spent 10 years at the Ford Motor Co., serving his last eight years there as director, Global Body Exterior and SBU Engineering.

"Lean principles and robots can enhance each other," Morgan says.

It's about balance, he suggests. "Lean is very people-centric. It's about 'How can we make the environment better for the people who are doing the work—and robots and automation in general are absolutely a way to do that." 

Morgan cites Toyota, whose lean credentials are unassailable, as one example.

"Some of the Toyota plants that I've toured, they make really excellent work of cobots… especially as the workforce ages," he notes. "They can create a much better working environment for those folks. But lean is still at the heart of the system, and the robots are just another tool that we can utilize to create a better environment."

Toyota recently showed off that very premise at its Huntsville, Alabama, engine plant, which has the capacity to produce 670,000 engines per year. The facility introduced its first collaborative robot in 2017 and currently has eight in action. It hopes to boost that number to 15 by year's end. The cobots' focus is on jobs that require repetitive, monotonous motions.

"We want [cobots] to do the moving, handling, pushing work so our team members… can focus on the critical thinking aspects of the project," explained Toyota engineering manager Jason Abney to ABC TV affiliate WAAY in early May.

"The robots are intended for collaboration, not replacement," Abney said. "We never reduce the amount of team members we have at the facility. We will reduce the effort to that area. We will take that team member to another needed area in the facility."

Indeed, replacing workers is precisely the opposite of what Toyota has planned in Huntsville. In March, the automaker announced plans to add two engine lines as part of a $288 million expansion project that is also expected to add some 450 jobs. The expansion will boost engine capacity to 900,000 by the end of 2021, the company said.

Lean: No Less a Requirement Than Safety Glasses and Ear Protection

While perhaps the most visible example of a company blending the strengths of lean manufacturing and robotics, Toyota is hardly alone in that regard.

AGCO, for instance, has embraced lean manufacturing and continuous improvement.

"It is a global fundamental requirement at all of our plants," says Peggy Gulick, director of digital transformation at the agricultural equipment maker, which produces brands such as Challenger and Massey-Ferguson. And while not every AGCO facility is at the same level of lean implementation, "it's no less of a requirement than safety glasses and ear protection and steel-toed shoes."

Technology is also paramount. Technology, she says, "is just another step in the whole continuous improvement journey. You're never going to reach perfection; you just get better every day at what you do—and technology has given us even more options to introduce to our plant to do that."

AGCO's Jackson, Minnesota, plant—a 2017 IndustryWeek Best Plants winner—is an illustration of  lean and technology acting in concert. Indeed, IW described the facility as the "junction of advanced manufacturing technology and lean culture" in an article heralding the plant's accomplishments last year. Google Glass, for example, is prevalent on the shop floor, where several hundred workers wear the eyepieces to quickly access work instructions and other information. The technology provided a productivity return twice what leaders had originally expected, while a lean culture of employee problem-solving and policy deployment bolsters the effectiveness of such technologies.

Robots are installed across ACGO's global footprint of manufacturing facilities, in component manufacturing areas, for welding and paint, and elsewhere. Gulick says the company is immersed in gaining knowledge about collaborative robots and their potential value to the business. She says the most successful cobot installation within AGCO is likely the one in Brazil, where the technology is laying adhesive on iron housings that become part of finished goods.

At AGCO, implementing technology—robots or otherwise—is not done simply for the sake of new technology. That type of reasoning is never going to drive much value back into the enterprise, Gulick suggests.

AGCO's lean approach is this: "AGCO solves problems. If we have a problem and there is some grand new technology like a robot or cobot that's out there, we will try it. We will bring it in; we will fail if that's what's going to happen, and we will learn from our mistakes and then grow our solutions to include that new knowledge," Gulick says.

In Brazil, for example, the company brought in the cobot to address excess material costs that arise when too much adhesive gets applied. A facility in Germany, on the other hand, is working with cobots to reduce monotonous work currently done by the human workforce. That effort remains a work in process.

"We'd rather have the humans where they're making decisions," Gulick says.

AGCO is among lean enterprises that perform lean audits every year, or every other year for smaller locations. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, facilities that score the highest on those lean audits are the locations most likely to be supportive of and progressive with bringing in process or technology innovations.

Gulick says it's not hard to understand why. "They're ready," she says. "They have the [lean] foundation; they've built in policy deployment, they've built in problem-solving."

These are the plants ready to add advanced tools to their solution box "and bring it in any time that they can use it," she says.

We Do Not Want People Being Robots

People are at the heart of a lean system, says LEI's Morgan. "We want their intelligence, we want their passion, we want to engage all of our team members."

While Viking Plastics doesn't state its lean leanings in exactly those words, its approach shares similar sentiments.

"We believe the secret sauce of lean is growing people, educating people and putting our creative minds to work to help make work better," says Viking's Shawn Gross, engineering manager. Corry, Pennsylvania-based Viking Plastics is a privately held injection molder that produces sealing solutions and custom molded components. It has multiple U.S. locations and several outside of the United States.

"Our philosophy is that we want to grow all of our employees into 'process engineers.' We want them to see the value in what they do, and we want them to see the waste in what they do. We train people to see waste and then require and request that they be part of the solution through '2 Second Lean.'"

"2 Second Lean" was developed by Paul Akers, founder of woodworking products company FastCap, and author of a book by the same name. The model keeps lean simple and focused on small daily improvements, which Gross says has helped Viking sustain its lean efforts since 2011.

The company sees no conflict between lean and automation. "We fully embrace technology, innovation and automation to help improve productivity and quality, and we do this while growing people to adapt to our changing manufacturing environment," Gross explains. "We don't see lean as an austerity program. It is not intended to be a slash-and-burn, get-rid-of-people process."

Viking's Corry location has significant amounts of automation, including robots above the molding machines that remove parts, as well as box and sort them. The company also has a robotic arm. It has a 3D printer, error-proofing and high-speed inspection systems, just to cite a few of its advanced technologies.

The use of robots, Gross says, allow people to do more value-added processes that engage their minds. "We do not want people being robots, doing repetitive, mindless tasks."

Moreover, because Viking emphasizes the workforce's value to the company, it is not uncommon for anyone—not just a member of the automation team—to ask why a piece of equipment hasn't been introduced in a certain area to eliminate the need for a human to perform a routine, mindless task. Or to make small, daily improvements that lead to a two-person operation being reduced to a one-person operation.

Such employees—and automation—aren't in danger of improving Viking associates out of a job at the company, Gross notes. On the contrary, those employees move to positions within the company that provide greater value both to the manufacturing company and the employee. A position in the quality lab is one such example.

Moreover, the collaboration between lean and automation is driving impressively low external quality defect rates, with some product lines shipping tens of millions of parts a year with zero defects, Gross says.

Ultimately, whether lean and robots are a dynamic duo or disruptive disaster depends on the human beings making the decisions about how such technologies are implemented. Are robots optimizing processes at the local level at the expense of the larger system? That's not lean. Are they helping improve quality? Is lean still at the heart of the system?

"The same lean principles apply whether it's robots or people," says Morgan.

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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