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Do Lean and Automation Go Together?

An important question to consider when going lean. Experts discuss top considerations for making new equipment and lean initiatives work together.

Lean automation means applying lean concepts where manual processes are best, and balancing these with the application of technology, but only where the use of technology really makes sense.

Some experts are adamant that the two don’t really belong together, but others believe the two can work together effectively in situations where lean processes efficiently feed automation, and automation supports the overall efficiency of the lean processes.

“I think lean and automation go together quite well because you are trying to boost production. I don’t know how you make a manufacturing company that is lean without automation,” stated Jim Gookin, technical troubleshooter for Viking Engineering.

In some cases, especially at sawmills and pallet plants today, labor shortages are pushing companies toward automation. And the shortages are not expected to get any better any time soon. A report released this spring by the research organization Conference Board predicted that several industries, including manufacturing, are about to experience a long period of labor shortage.

In the wood products industry, low-value added operations can more easily be automated than high-value ones, according to Henry Quesada-Pineda, an associate professor at Virginia Tech who specializes in continuous improvement and works with sawmills and secondary wood products companies as a consultant and on a variety of projects.

According to Quesada-Pineda, materials handling machines like conveyors or stacking equipment are good examples of tasks that can be automated while adhering to lean concepts. Automation may also make sense in visual inspection, such as lumber grading.

Gookin disagreed. He suggested, “In our industry, the high value is the pallet assembly side of the process. That’s a really good place to automate. The key question is, ‘How many pallets can you produce per hour per employee?’”

Every situation is different though, and you really have to take a look at your processes before rushing out and buying equipment. “One of the key ideas of lean is before you buy anything, like software and hardware, you really look at the process and try to improve it as it is,” said Quesada-Pineda. “There are a lot of things that you can improve with little or zero investment.”

For example, just by better organizing the work space, you might be able to improve your process by freeing up valuable space and making it faster and easier for workers to find and access what they need.

Gookin agreed that automation doesn’t necessarily solve problems if you have a poor process. You need to have a plan before you buy a new piece of equipment. He explained, “You must have the ability to support automation, whether it be lumber prep, moving pallets in and out, or whatever. Otherwise, you purchase a piece of equipment and don’t get the most out of it.”

One thing that automation does do is improve consistency of a product and dictate the speed of output. Gookin commented, “Automation makes it easier to create consistency and a simple process. You basically do the same thing every time. The nailing machine sets the pace and determines the nailing pattern and board placement.”

But Gookin warned, “You have to keep the machine running to get maximum efficiency. Even though the machine sets the pace, an operator can open a gate or hit a safety stop at any point and reduce efficiency.”

Involving everyone in the process is another important aspect of a lean industrial environment, he said. “You try to develop a system where people actually get involved by participating in training sessions and working together to try to solve problems.”

“If you are thinking you can just buy automation to fix the problem, it’s just going to exponentially make the problem worse,” Quesada-Pineda said. “What we know based on case studies is if you go directly into automation, things will be worse because you haven’t actually addressed the process which is the most important part.”

“In lean, the objective is simplification,” according to Bob Emiliani, a professor, author and expert in lean management, as well as a pioneer of lean leadership. “Lean is not pro automation or anti-automation.” However, he said it does tend to sway more toward anti-automation, than pro, but explained that it really depends on what you’re doing.

In real life things are a bit more complicated and each situation is unique. Like Quesada-Pineda, Emiliani advises companies to first figure out their processes, and how they can be simplified, and then figure out the equipment they need. Ironically, he said most companies do this the opposite way. They buy equipment and then try to figure out the process. “They end up spending 15-20 times the money. And automation and machinery often substitute for critical thinking,” said Emiliani.

The key to the process is to truly evaluate the situation to understand what could be done better. Emiliani explained, “One of the things that is a hallmark of lean is that people put in the effort to figure out whether or not it makes sense to automate. They have to ask ‘What’s the simplest way I can do something?’ People need to use their intellect and creativity to think about what their problems are, and not just go to an outside supplier of automation equipment.”

Greg Wine, president of Pallet Machinery Group, commented that lean and automation can go together because lean is about having things in the right place and that makes automation more efficient.

Wine added, “It all depends on the application. Sometimes automation makes things simpler due to repetitive motion. Other times automation can make things more complex, such as moving from manual to PC controls that can require a more technologically inclined worker.”

Much of the early work in lean practices has taken place in in the automotive industry with parts that are very similar made out of plastic or metal. Wine suggested, “Lean manufacturing in the pallet industry is worlds apart from the automotive sector. Every piece of wood is unique unlike automotive parts, which are supposed to be fairly uniform…You take cants – until you start sawing into it, you don’t know what is inside.”

Every application is unique requiring analysis from operators, managers, engineers and other experts. Just because you have always done something that way in the past doesn’t make it the right way to do something.

“Lean has a strong emphasis on engineering,” Emiliani said, encouraging manufacturers to “use your thinking to develop your own equipment, then you can manage and fix it yourself. Let’s say I need to drill a hole in something. There are complicated ways to do that with big expensive machinery, or I can use a simple drill head and combination to do the same job.”

Quesada-Pineda reminded that manufacturers also need to look at the future when considering automation. “You may see a cool machine that builds a pallet, but you have to stop and think if it’s going to fit your needs five years from now. Otherwise, purchasing it might limit your growth in the future. You have to have the flexibility to make changes as you need them.”

But when automating, as both Emiliani and Quesada-Pineda pointed out, you’re somewhat reliant on the third party equipment manufacturer, unless you’ve built the equipment yourself.

“Automation might mean re-work and less waste, but not necessarily,” Emiliani said of these two big benefits of automation that you often hear about. You really have to consider each situation, and weigh a number of factors, he said. One factor that can impact whether automation is the right solution is the volume of product you’re producing, and another is whether you’re producing a lot of the same product, or whether you fill a lot of mixed orders.

“Automation might work well when you don’t have a high level of customization,” said Quesada-Pineda, But when doing a lot of custom work, it might not work so well.

Gookin confirmed this tendency when he said most automated nailing lines need at least  a few hundred pallets per size/design to make the process worthwhile to do on a machine. Even if it only takes less than 10 minutes to changeover a machine, you still have to stage lumber and do other things that can add to the process.

Companies who want to go lean should begin by mastering the basic 5S tools – sort, set, shine, standardize and sustain, he said. “These don’t require a huge investment, but they do require discipline.”

Also, if you involve automation, it is a good idea to talk with the manufacturer to identify best practices. You want to know what is the optimum production rate for that machine, not the old line or doing it by hand. And if you are not able to meet those targets, you need to be looking for what could be contributing to poor production rates.

One way you can improve your output is through better lumber feeding. Gookin suggested, “You want to turn material the correct way. For example, with the old gang saws, you used to have steps in the lumber. You had to turn boards the right way or they would lock up. Steps are ridges in the boards that can hang up in the nailing machines.”

If your company seriously wants to transform and follow solid lean principles, Emiliani recommends that you also get advice from a kaizen consultant who has specific knowledge of process improvement.

Kaizen, which means “improvement” in Japanese, is the practice of continuous improvement in the business world. It was originally introduced to the West by Masaaki Imai of Japan, and really took off worldwide after being used successfully by Toyota.

Emiliani, who has written numerous books including “Better Thinking, Better Results,” recommends this book to those in the pallet industry because “it shows the approach to kaizan that one should take in order to get results. It’s a real life story of a real life company with real people,” he said.

Emiliani helps organizations by leading workshops, assisting in the development of lean leadership training programs, speaking at company meetings, and through lean leadership coaching.

Lean and automation can go together. And better management of all your assets will continue to be crucial to survive. Gookin concluded, “Right now you have the labor shortage, and the talent is not as good as it used to be in many places. Also, you are hearing more about $15 hour minimum wages, which will drive employee costs up. All of this will put more and more of a crunch on the pallet industry.”