Leveraging Lean Robotics to Support Lean Manufacturing Principles

The demand for fast production is exploding exponentially, and consumers are demanding quality at a higher rate than ever. Manufacturing must keep up with industry standards and customer expectations for efficiency and quality to stay in the game.

Today, many manufacturers have begun to adopt solutions to help reduce waste to increase profitability. That’s where lean robotics comes into the equation. Whether you have already implemented lean principles into your manufacturing processes or are thinking about weaving them into your company’s future vision, it is vital to understand how you can leverage the use of lean robotics to support your lean manufacturing strategy further, especially as many companies are turning to automated solutions to enhance their processes.

What is Lean Manufacturing?

Lean manufacturing is a key strategy that has helped nearly every industry implement continuous improvement principles. By using lean methodologies and tools, manufacturers can provide the end-user with consistent, quality, defect-free products while reducing time-to-market and costs. The basic idea is that lean manufacturing allows you to take out unnecessary items, processes, and resources from the value stream that does not add to the product’s overall value. According to lean principles, these items are called “waste”.

The good news is, virtually any enterprise can apply lean philosophies to their existing processes – but the value increases tenfold by using them in tandem with lean robots. And while it’s understood that lean is typically very people-centric, lean robotics can actually enhance the environment for the operators and employees doing the work.

What are the Benefits of Using Lean Robotics with Lean Principles?

Lean principles and lean robotics are a customer satisfaction and profitability powerhouse. When they work together, they amplify the shared goal of satisfying customers at the lowest cost possible while reducing unproductive manufacturing elements to improve operational efficiencies. Let’s look at some of the more specific ways your company can capitalize on combining these two disciplines:

Less Waste

Reducing waste is the key benefit of using lean principles. When companies use lean principles and equipment, the idea is that they can do more with less, which leads to considerable downstream benefits. Waste could be considered as:

  • Defects – Products or processes that have faults, bugs, errors, or issues that need debugging, re-work, or elimination
  • Inventory – Ordering and storing excess products or components
  • Motion and Transportation – Unnecessary or unproductive movement of resources, including people, vehicles, and machinery components
  • Overproduction – Producing more parts or products than is needed
  • Overprocessing – Integrating unnecessary steps into the manufacturing or production process
  • Waiting – Having people or machinery idle while awaiting inputs, directions, or resolutions

Unfortunately, reducing waste can also be one of the biggest challenges of production. When processes and people have been in place for years or decades, it can seem like a massive overhaul to modify production for a slight reduction in waste and increase in profits. This doesn’t account for hidden wastes often overlooked in production that can hinder the true benefit of lean manufacturing.

Luckily, if done right, reducing or even eliminating scraps, rework, and unproductive activity, your equipment and people can be more efficient and get the job done at a much faster rate. When you incorporate lean robots, you can have these automated machines perform several different tasks in one centralized location without moving people or resources or requiring manual intervention. This substantially reduces the process inefficiencies that are often at the root of most production waste.

More Integrated Connectivity

The surge of Industry 4.0 means that industry leaders are undergoing significant transformations to increase their workflow efficiencies and make most of their lean manufacturing efforts.

The Industry 4.0 adoption has allowed manufacturers to utilize the Internet of Things (IoT) to improve enterprise-wide efforts. They have been doing this by connecting automated equipment to business systems using anything from simple sensors, smart sensors, and smart cameras to RFID technology. Introducing this technology means that manufacturers can automatically monitor, predict, and prevent potential waste and defects by using predictive analytics and process-based machine learning.

Once lean machinery has been equipped with cloud-based technology and the algorithm’s accuracy improves, it takes the guesswork out of maintenance, quality, and production speed, which benefits the performance of the entire plant.

Reduces Costs

The one significant advantage of automation is that it reduces the workforce necessary to complete a job or a series of tasks. When automation is weaved into manufacturing facilities, leadership often finds that they require less overhead to run the same processes and can reduce the number of shifts to complete the same job. This is often done in collaboration with “cobots” or “collaborative robots, which operate alongside human workers to reduce the human effort required to complete a task.

Because cobots don’t take up much real estate in the factory, nor do they take significant time to implement, manufacturers can easily and quickly integrate them into their workflow without much cost or disruption. They are perfect for that repetitive, mundane work that requires significant time and energy from humans and often leads to injury or mistakes. Some tasks where cobots could add value include pick and place, quality inspection, and machine tending, and they’ll do so with a lower defect rate.

What is great about cobots and their cost-saving potential is that they can often be integrated with minimal training. Employees often won’t require any special skills or qualifications to operate these machines. From an investment perspective, utilizing cobot technology could yield a return on investment within 12 months. Furthermore, it was found that facilities that score highest on their lean audits are the ones that support the use of these technological innovations.

If even a cobot isn’t used, and a general automated standalone machine is used instead, it’s important to note that these lean machines can operate nearly 24/7 without breaks. They can produce outputs faster than conventional manufacturing methods and do so with precision and consistency. This means no more scrap metal waste, no more overtime, and no more monotonous and high-risk tasks performed by employees.

Increases Safety

Many manufacturing processes involve the risk of injuries and accidents. In fact, injuries cost U.S. manufacturing companies more than $7 billion per year, causing employees to miss an average of 5 days of work, according to Liberty Mutual’s Workplace Safety Index. This is usually due to physical strain, repetitive stress, accidental falls, and collisions with plant equipment.

By using lean robotics with lean manufacturing processes, manufacturers can remove monotonous work steps that leave employees at risk of some of these common workplace injuries. It can also eliminate some of the hazardous conditions that employees often work in. Innovation has made it possible to retrofit legacy equipment with automation upgrades and AI capabilities, such as temperature and humidity sensors that can detect when it is becoming risky or unsafe to operate the equipment.

As lean manufacturing streamlines operations, your people and equipment are available to operate with higher productivity and can focus on the more critical-thinking aspects of the project. More productivity means more profitability.

How to Integrate Robotics with Lean Operations

As with any new technological integration, manufacturers will need to be sure that adopting lean robotics and automation into their lean manufacturing systems is the right fit for their production line. Although most factories can benefit from some level of lean robotics application, it is most ideal for precision assembly, high volume/low mix products, or for manufacturers that are under a tight time-to-market cycle time. This means that utilizing lean robotics isn’t just limited to large-scale enterprises – small and medium-sized companies can take advantage too. Nearly any repetitive process is a candidate for lean robotics!

The fact is, the future of manufacturing will favor those that effectively adopt technological advancements such as robotic automation in their lean manufacturing processes. Removing excess time, effort, and costs from existing processes means more operational flexibility, more control, more time to innovate, and more chance to make groundbreaking solutions.

When deciding when is the best time to invest in lean robotics, it helps to utilize an expert team of robotic integrators, which can help you figure out how to incorporate lean robots into your existing or future lean principles. Robotics experts, like SDC, can help you determine your needs and budget for the job to meet your manufacturing needs with the best robotic solutions – no matter the industry.

Contact our robotic experts today to discuss your upcoming projects and check out our past projects.