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Robotic Solutions: The Next Phase of Lean Manufacturing

By Daniel Theobald, CIO and co-founder of Vecna Robotics

This article takes a deep dive into the history and present state of Lean Manufacturing in materials handling. It focuses on the pioneers and innovations that brought us to the current state of material flow and the practice of waste elimination. It is part one in a four-part series focused on robotic integration in the material handling value stream.

Lean Manufacturing reduces production time and costs by eliminating waste (non-value-added activities). Its origins trace back to the concept of interchangeable parts; its evolution brings us into the term and process we know today.

Lean Manufacturing was molded by leading scientists, industrial engineers, and innovative organizations such as Ford and Toyota. The core concept behind Lean Manufacturing, waste elimination, is a valuable strategy to increase the bottom line while speeding up the rate of production.

However, as e-commerce and manufacturing demands increase, companies are discovering current processes for identifying and executing lean techniques are unable to keep with new customer expectations in a safe, reliable, and profitable manner.

Today, to successfully eliminate waste, manufacturers need to incorporate robotic solutions. Robotic solutions merge the best of what humans and robots can do by utilizing the high-value strengths of each resource and eliminating non-value adds.

The origins of lean: a look back at interchangeable parts

To understand the business impacts of automated mobile solutions and their role within Lean Manufacturing, it is important to review the origins of Lean Manufacturing.

In 1779, Eli Whitney agreed to deliver 10,000 muskets to the US Army within a year. An unheard of feat at the time. Whitney did not meet his deadline, but he did produce the rifles in record time by making the muskets out of compatible parts that could be easily mass produced and replaced. Prior to this method, guns were made one-by-one by craftsman; the process was time-consuming and expensive.

The US Army was in the midst of a war with France and needed working guns, handcrafted artwork brought no significant value to them. Interchangeable parts standardized the manufacturing process and got rid of extraneous steps, enabling unskilled workers to make and repair weapons quickly at a fraction of the price.

Bringing science into the process

By the late 1800s, the majority of the industrial world adopted the concept of interchangeable parts, including a mechanical engineer named Frederick W. Taylor. Taylor believed he could further improve worker efficiency by continuously monitoring a task and recording how long it took to complete, ultimately discovering the optimal performance rate.

Taylor’s work was expanded by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, who monitored the behavioral and psychological aspects of workers as they completed each task. These findings, along with Taylor’s, became known as the Motion-Time Study. The two studies broke down individual tasks into simple steps, allowing one to identify and eliminate any waste (non-value-added work).

The term Lean Manufacturing had yet to be coined, but the Taylor and the Gilbreths used science to more effectively execute the theory. Their thoughts became known as scientific management, and their findings fueled the Industrial Revolution.

The next level: introduction to the assembly line

Henry Ford is synonymous with the Industrial Revolution, but it was a pattern maker within his Detroit automobile plant, Charles E. Sorensen, who examined the relationship between people, machines, tooling, and products and organized them to achieve a continuous flow of production. Sorenson’s invention became known as the assembly line.

At its core, the assembly line standardizes a process and eliminates waste to achieve cheaper and faster results without sacrificing quality. It allowed the Model T to be built in two and a half hours rather than twelve and priced at 36 percent less.

The universal notion of Lean Manufacturing was still unknown and unlabeled, but the massive savings produced by the assembly line were undeniable. Waste elimination was and still is an essential business strategy, and the concept expanded industries, decades, and continents.

Toyota Production System

By 1948, Toyota Motor Company engineers, Taichii Ohno, and Sakichi Toyoda were utilizing the assembly line but were eager to find and eliminate more waste. All car manufacturers were working off assembly lines, and Toyota needed a more refined system to stay at the forefront of the growing global market.

They realized inventory accounted for a lot of waste, and there was no system in place to manage it. This observation led Ohno and Toyoda to design the Toyota Production System (TPS) or Just-in-Time production, eliminating waste by making only what is needed, when it is needed, and in the amount it is needed.

Toyoda and Ohno highlighted eight key areas of waste: defects, overproduction, waiting, non-utilization of talent, transport waste, inventory, motion, and excess processing. By reducing these eight factors, an organization conserves resources to provide the best quality, lowest cost, and shortest lead time.

Toyota addressed another central flaw in the assembly line: change. The original assembly line was built around a single, never changing product. It did not work well when new or alternate products were introduced. This discovery culminated in cellular manufacturing, utilizing multiple “cells” of diverse machines and technologies to complete a certain product or task.

Cells are organized in an assembly line like fashion and products move around to the appropriate cells to make a wide variety of items as efficiently as possible. This process reduced setups from hours to minutes and seconds, allowing for multiple batches and continuous flows.

Toyota used TPS as a method of manufacturing cars, but the concept applied to the rest of the industrial world. It became known as Lean Manufacturing after a quality engineer from Toyota wrote his master thesis on TPS and entitled it, “The Triumph of Lean Manufacturing.”

While the execution of Lean Manufacturing is highly specific to an organization, the eight types of waste identified are constant. Failure to consider these variables slows down production and decreases quality; ultimately resulting in unhappy customers and financial loss.

The next phase of lean manufacturing: robotic solutions

Manufacturers today have found themselves at a similar roadblock to the one Toyota was in prior to TPS. The current techniques for Lean Manufacturing are just not cutting it. E-commerce and manufacturing demands are rising, and the current workflow is unable to deliver on increased customer expectations (quick delivery, customized items, high quality) in a safe, reliable, and profitable manner.

Leaders are looking towards value streams for the answer. Value Stream Mapping (VSM, Figure 1) is a widely used roadmap to execute Lean Manufacturing in the 21st century. VSM is a system to record, study, and improve the flow of materials and information needed to produce a product or service.

VSM examines the current stages of a process to determine the value-adds for the customer. It then analyzes the results to design a more efficient process for the future. VSM is an effective system but is limited by the amount of data and frequency of collection.

Implementing robotic solutions is the logical answer to this challenge. Robots not only automate repetitive tasks (lifting, cross-docking, applying) at a faster, consistent, and constant pace, they also collect data as they work, learning as they go. They provide a perpetual flow of data that is automatically stored and delivered to a human workforce.

Organizations can use these data to strengthen their VSM. It allows them to analyze the current state of operation, identify areas of waste, and create a more efficient process – CONTINUOUSLY.

Vecna Robotics takes continuous learning one step further. Vecna’s unique Autonomy Stack allows robots to build upon what they already know and share their knowledge with the rest of the fleet. This means, what one robot learns ALL robots learn. Thus, robots can be moved throughout sections of a warehouse to accommodate peaks in demand and even across multiple locations to support busy seasons.

Not only do robotic systems help identify waste, but their ability to repeatedly produce non-stop also creates an uninterrupted, and faster workflow with limited non-value-added travel. Organizations that are integrating self-driving vehicles and associated technologies capture up to a 200 percent increase in productivity and decrease non-value-added travel by 80 percent. Robots have also achieved a less than one percent defect rate while increasing the rate of throughput.

Furthermore, robots replace bulky conveyor belts and open floor space for additional warehouse capabilities. For instance, companies with extra floor space can merge multiple warehouses into one, reducing a plethora of operational costs, such as rent, and electric bills.

Vecna’s autonomous tuggers in action
Vecna’s autonomous Tuggers in action

Divide and conquer

As mentioned above, robots have powerful advantages: precision, efficiency, data collection, and repetition. Humans also possess inherent strengths: reasoning, emotional intelligence, and generalization. However, the majority of automated industrial solutions providers are not capitalizing on these distinct abilities.

Numerous companies require a human and robot to work in tandem, in the same process step together. They either follow behind the robot to pick and place or wait around to send out or receive materials. This goes against the core notion of Lean Manufacturing; it is using two resources to perform a task that should only be performed by one.

The solution is a communication tool that embraces the natural strengths of humans and robots, utilizing the high-value assets of each resource and eliminating non-value adds., the world’s first artificial intelligence (AI)-based orchestration engine pioneered by Vecna Robotics, is that tool. It manages all operational resources, humans, robots, legacy automation, and manual equipment and allocates tasks based on resource capabilities, availability, and location.

Robots and humans perform tasks independently to divide and conquer rather than duplicating efforts. Additionally, by managing operational resources, can track and monitor equipment. It knows exactly when to power it off, clean, or repair. This information can double the lifespan of assets, saving companies a significant amount of capital.

Robotic solutions focus on the most valuable skillsets within humans and robots and combines them with real-time intelligence to maximize productivity and optimize performance. It is executing Lean Manufacturing at the ultimate level, redefining the workflow just like the concepts of interchangeable parts, the assembly line, and TPS before it.

Daniel Theobald, CIO and co-founder, Vecna Technologies
Daniel Theobald, Vecna Robotics CIO and co-founder

About the author: Daniel Theobald co-founded Vecna Technologies in 1998, with the mission of empowering humanity through transformative technologies. He’s been at the forefront of robotics R&D for over 20 years, partnering with DARPA, DoD, NASA, NIH, USDA and many others.

Today, he is the Chief Innovation Officer of Vecna Robotics. Vecna Robotics supplies Automated Material Handling, Hybrid Fulfillment, and Workflow Optimization solutions featuring mobile robots powered by a unique learning autonomy stack and the world’s first orchestration engine,

Theobald is co-founder and President of MassRobotics and holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT. He has received the Henry Ford II Scholar Award, NSF Fellowships, and a Hertz Fellowship award.