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What is lean manufacturing and where do autonomous mobile robots fit in?

What Is Lean Manufacturing? How to Streamline with Flexible Automation

July 15, 2021  |  Seegrid

Lean manufacturing is not a new term in the industry—lean methodology has been around since the 1990s, and it has roots dating back to early 1900s automobile production, with Ford’s assembly line and the Toyota Production System.

But as consumer demand keeps the pressure on manufacturers to be competitive through an increased reliance on e-commerce, fluctuating order volumes, and demand for custom orders, lean manufacturing is more important now than ever. 

What is lean manufacturing in the context of your material handling facility, and how can you utilize automation to bring the methodology to life to streamline your organization?

Flexible and Lean Manufacturing Systems Defined

Lean manufacturing, also referred to as lean production, is sometimes used interchangeably with flexible manufacturing, but they’re actually two different philosophies. 

  • Lean manufacturing facilities maximize throughput with fewer resources and accomplish it in less time and with less effort than other methods. It often requires flexible tools and technology that can balance material flow and keep up with the pace of production.
  • Flexible manufacturing enables companies to react to changes. Manufacturing facility staff can leverage the methodology to expand the production manufacturing process or change workflows to meet customer demand, which keeps costs down.

When deciding on which operational flexibility approach to take, facility managers luckily don’t have to choose between the two—an operation can be lean and flexible. The trick is to find the best lean tools that allow you to accomplish the most amount of tasks as quickly, efficiently, and cost-effectively as possible without compromising safety. For long-term success, the lean tools you choose must be flexible and agile to respond to the rapidly evolving facility landscape. 

This is where autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) come in. Manual material movement is a significant resource expense and does not provide any customer value. An agile manufacturing AMR solution ticks all the lean and flexible boxes and addresses this expense by helping companies move materials efficiently and safely while supporting efforts to be responsive to the needs of customers, especially when it comes to customized orders.

Here are just two of the ways AMRs can help you achieve a lean and flexible manufacturing system:

1. Reducing Lead Time

Decreasing inventory to levels that are conducive to your operation will reduce lead time. The pull system is a lean manufacturing technique used to reduce waste in the production process, where facilities make a product based on actual customer demand. The pull system means that the facility won’t house a large surplus of products, allowing more space to be devoted to the areas that directly lead to getting customers what they want.

AMRs excel in this kind of agile manufacturing process. Automating the transport of materials and products in facilities reduces operational costs, lead time, safety issues, and foot traffic. In fact, Seegrid Palion AMRs can easily be trained by in-house personnel with routes to reliably deliver materials to workstations at precise times. Once the task is completed, the employee at the workstation simply pushes a button to notify the AMR that it can continue with its next job. Moving only the right amount of product at the right time eliminates bottlenecks in the production line, effectively moving material between workstations or assembly lines as needed.


2. Transporting Materials to the Production Floor

Getting materials to the production floor safely and efficiently is vital to a flexible production system and lean process. It’s not as easy as it sounds, because in most cases, moving material involves human workers. Allocating the right amount of workforce can be challenging due to issues such as productivity fluctuations, absent workers or a shortage of workers, including those on sick or vacation time or due to the shortage of skilled laborers, custom order due dates, or material delays to the production line, all of which affect resources. Regardless of which specific issue you may face at a given time, there is a cost associated with all of them that directly and negatively impacts lean manufacturing. 

Integrating a flexible autonomous transportation system to move materials and products can help with labor uncertainties, in addition to reducing labor costs, safety issues, and inventory on the production floor. Additionally, automating dangerous and monotonous tasks allows facility managers to redistribute their human workers to safer and more mentally stimulating jobs elsewhere in the company, thus improving employee satisfaction and safety. Automating tasks increases reliability and accuracy as human error is eliminated from the equation, which ensures goods arrive on time, every time.

Flexible automation solutions also enable businesses to continually improve material flow in their facility as demands change and grow. For example, with Seegrid’s holistic solutions, users can retrain and redeploy their Seegrid Palion AMRs without having to wait for a technician, thus reducing additional costs and downtime waiting for an expert to travel to the site. 

Seegrid’s cloud-based fleet analytics software, Fleet Geek, is another technology tool that will lead manufacturing facility managers on the path of continuous improvement. Fleet Geek collects Palion AMR fleet performance data that shows trends and can inform data-based productivity decisions and process improvement. For example, Fleet Geek can report on insights, like high wait times, periods of low utilization, and high-traffic areas, that when improved, could directly optimize fleet performance and boost capacity.

The Future Requires a Flexible, Lean Automation Machine

To keep up with consumer demands and competition, a material handling facility manager must fully commit to lean thinking. This includes examining the facility and current workflows, perhaps with an automation vendor during a facility scope, to determine the best opportunities to eliminate waste, costs, and bottlenecks to streamline and drive efficiencies. When managers trust AMRs to take their material handling to the next level, it frees up a massive amount of resources and human power that can be better utilized elsewhere. 

The supply chain is facing more disruptions, challenges, and opportunities than ever. The flexibility of Palion AMRs is critical for material handling facilities to be agile and resilient today and in the long term.

Want to learn more? Download this infographic to discover how to map your route to automation success by driving efficiency with AMRs and data analytics. 

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