Synergize lean with technology

March 23, 2009   by Noelle Stapinsky, Features Editor

When it comes to mixing automation with lean processes, many manufacturers question whether the two should go together on the plant floor.

Indeed some industry professionals think of automation as high through-put and production-capacity driven, not demand driven, according to one of Bosch Rexroth’s recent podcasts titled “Lean Manufacturing and Automation Technology.”
Episode eight of an ongoing series features co-author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean, Jamie Flinchbaugh, who tackles the common myths that have deterred manufacturers from combining automation with lean process, and he offers tips for solving lean challenges.


There are many myths about mixing automation with lean. Flinchbaugh says some manufacturers think being lean means being fully automated, while others think the opposite. But they have to remember that implementing lean is an approach to solving manufacturing problems.

It’s about producing a quality product in the most efficient and economical manner, says Steve Yardley, Bosch Rexroth’s sales manager of automation technology in Burlington, Ont. To do this, manufacturers should look at decreasing over production, wait and time, transportation, inventory, motion and defective goods. An automated conveyor, if used correctly, eliminates at least five of those wastes, says Yardley, who contends it’s a mistake to believe the lean principle of avoiding excessive conveyance means conveyors shouldn’t be used.

“Using some form of mechanized transportation system means there’s no need for manual production. I’ve seen many lean cells where an operator moves a part from point A to B in a straight line. They move it one foot. What’s the point of that motion?

Reducing work in progress

Conveyor systems create a constant work-piece flow that eliminates time spent relocating a part, while reducing cycle time and the operator’s wait and time.

By going with a single piece flow, you’re reducing the amount of work in progress, therefore reducing inventory that may not get finished or sent off to the next workstation. “Your parts are moving through a line and are gradually building value,” says Yardley.

This, of course, is not to say that a conveyor system is the right solution for all operations. If your cycle time is less than five seconds, conveyors can’t keep up because of the time it takes to move a work-piece pallet into position. But other automation solutions could be used.

Automation can also be used to decrease defective products. Vision systems and conveyors and carriers prevent errors or at least detect them.

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