Lean manufacturing processes

Look for wasted movements, time and effort, wasted space, and disorganized work areas. Ask operators how to eliminate waste and think visually.

By Jack Rubinger November 29, 2013

How do you get started making a manufacturing process lean, so you can then apply automation, where it makes sense? Just take a look around.

Look for wasted movements, time and effort, wasted space, and disorganized work areas. The next step is to ask operators how to eliminate waste and think visually about how and where things should go. Often, a simple instructional or operational sign can help an operator remember and prioritize all the steps in a particular process. Color-coded shadow boards are great for helping users and tool crib managers track tool usage, minimizing theft and keeping track of who’s hogging the hammer.

“Manufacturers typically deal with seven forms of waste: inventory, overproduction, transport, defects, overprocessing, motion, and waiting,” said Melissa Topp, the director of global marketing for enterprise software provider, Iconics. “Lean manufacturing is an iterative approach that encourages manufacturers to eliminate those sources of waste. Technology solutions accompanying each phase concentrate on manufacturing intelligence reporting, alarm management, and downtime reduction.”

The manufacturing automation industry is huge, encompassing technologies such as computer controlled machines for processing and handling products, process automation systems, general motion control systems, automation related software, and condition-monitoring equipment and systems.

Business benefits of automation include global competition, meeting orders more quickly, faster deliveries, increasing shift productivity, lowering operating costs, increasing yields, reducing load/unload times, reducing damage or breakage during handling, less material waste, and labor savings.

In Australia, there’s no such thing as cheap labor, explained James Abbot, Challenge Engineering. Abbot relies on computer numeric control (CNC) machining, which offers multiple manufacturing processes in one machine. Setup is streamlined, with most tools already in a carousel that can hold up to 72 tools, but all turning, milling, and drilling operations can be carried out in one setup. This type of automation machinery maximizes staffing and helps the company maintain a competitive edge over imported rivals, particularly with a strong Australian dollar.

Return on investment (ROI)

When faced with production requirements that exceeded current operational capabilities, PGT Industries applied Iconics’ software to the 12 most critical production assets to analyze the overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) of the current plant. The software was used to zero in on sources of loss of OEE, focusing on availability, quality, and performance. PGT Industries realized enough savings and cut enough waste that it postponed its plans to build a third production facility, resulting in major savings for the company, and discovered that it could run at 1.5 times its previous production capacity with the same capital assets. With these findings, PGT Industries decreased labor and energy costs by 20%.

Portable analytical instruments help automate processes in the pharmaceutical and scrap metal industries, according to Larry Zeltner, director of operational excellence, portable analytical instruments, Thermo Fisher Scientific.

“Monitoring and controlling raw material and quality regulatory compliance is critical with pharma companies,” he said. “A relatively low-cost handheld device generates instantaneous, real time, and accurate results, avoiding costly and time-consuming quality control analysis typically done by offsite labs, which charge by the hour or project. This approach puts quality control into the hands of the operator. On the industrial side, we’re working closely with customers who deal with sorting through scrap metal from trailer loads. XRF screening tools help them make accurate and quick estimates of the value of these loads, leading to profitable decisions in a business that operates on thin margins.”

Automation played an important role in the recipe for Barbers Farmhouse Cheesemakers’ success. The challenge there is to ensure accurate size and weights for cheeses (required by U.K. law), while minimizing oversized portions. Barbers’ engineers implemented an automated weighing and cutting system and reduced give away from between 4% and 5% to less than 1%.

Another hands-on approach to lean manufacturing and automation was delivered by Lois Quinn, rapid operational improvement, for a furniture manufacturer, eliminating the need for an outside lean consultant. With the patience of a good parent, the encouragement of a high school basketball coach, and the precise calculations of an engineer, Quinn and her team addressed several key challenges and engineered the changes.

One obvious challenge was an awkward framing table used to square and assemble office desk divider panels commonly used in offices. Before launching into the lean program, measureable goals were established:

  • Improve the table, decrease frame assembly time, and eliminate defects.
  • Reduce change-over time from one panel size to the next and improve ergonomics by eliminating reaching over to get to smaller panels in the middle of the table.
  • Identify and eliminate major safety hazards.

A Kaizen workshop lead by two operators resolved related issues. The new table rides on linear bearings to adjust to the width of the panel. Two clamps (one at each corner) can be quickly moved to adjust panel height. This allows two operators to work on opposite sides of the panel at the same time without reaching out over the table. In the past they would be required to carry the panel to another table. Now all the work can be completed at one table, eliminating safety and ergonomic issues of lifting and moving panels, and saving time. 

Benefits include:

  • Minimal work in progress (WIP)
  • Minimal part travel distances
  • Safe and ergonomically designed production cell
  • Production readiness for the table, handling 800 panels daily
  • Quantified the allocated portion of labor costs and time to achieve 25% cost reduction
  • Reduced safety and ergonomic issues by 100%
  • Improved 5S level by 25% (5S = sort, simplify, shine, standardize, and sustain).

From both a managerial and an operational perspective, automation plays an important role in lean manufacturing because it frees up time for humans to actually think about their processes and it speeds tasks and jobs that machines can ably do.

But some experts believe automated processes should be phased in systematically.

“Automation typically isn’t a solution that can be tried, fixed, and changed easily, and should occur in the latter stages of a lean implementation to eliminate worker ergonomic overburden as well as mitigate potential safety concerns,” said Paola Castaldo, Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

She added, “But designing automated systems before going through the rigors of lean could potentially fix the wrong problem because you could be automating a broken system. However, when human constraints get in the way of continuous flow and quality, automation could be the only way to deliver the next incremental improvement and be an appropriate solution.”

Safety and lean

Eliminating opportunities for injuries goes hand in hand with increasing business productivity. While some view injuries as an unavoidable consequence in many operations and industries, these impact the bottom line, the lives of employees and their families, and even the morale of the other employees. 

The wave of the future is balancing the ROI of implementing automation processes and achieving job/work satisfaction. The tools and coaches are out there. Don’t hesitate to start eliminating the waste from your operation.

– Jack Rubinger, public relations, Graphic Products. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering, Plant Engineering, and Consulting-Specifying Engineer, mhoske@cfemedia.com.




Key concepts

  • As a first step toward lean, look for wasted movements, time and effort, wasted space, and disorganized work areas.
  • Ask operators how to eliminate waste
  • Think visually about how and where things should go.

Consider this

What processes could you be making leaner, before considering automation?

See links to additional lean-related articles below.