I’ve been in the Industrial Automation business for over 15 years now and have seen quite a swing in the way manufacturers produce their products. About 12 years ago I was working for a major tier 1 automotive components supplier as a process engineer. The production lines were comprised of these large sophisticated machines that were all linked together with conveyors. Parts were transported from station to station on small conveyor pallets and would stop at each station to either have value add work done or some sort of test or inspection performed.
There were several key issues with the large fully automated systems that produced our company’s products.
- The lines were very expensive. Many times ranging between $10-$15 million each.
- The lead time for getting a full production line in place was anywhere between 15-24 months.
- The machines were very complex and required a high level of engineering and maintenance support to keep them running.
- The inventory of spare parts required to keep the systems up and running was huge
- The systems, although “fully automated”, required more operators and support than expected to keep the systems running and clear all the faults, jams and other issues related to a complex system.
- Changeovers took shifts if not days in some cases. (Loss productivity and lots of labor for the CO)
- The overall systems up time was terrible and in most cases ran in the 60-65% range
- If one machine in the overall system went down, the entire line stopped while issues were resolved
- The lines took up a huge amount of floor space and impeded process flow in many areas
Nice overview of traditional factory automation huh? Well, the leaders of the company realized that this was not working out. By the time a system was ordered, built, installed and commissioned, up to 2 years had gone by and many changes in both their product’s technologies and customer demands had changed.
So lean thinking was introduced into the company and embraced by senior management. This is ABSOLUTLY!! key for lean thinking to even have a chance. The first task, after the basic 5’s stuff was out of the way was to find a better way to manufacture parts with simple, flexible equipment solutions that would address all the above listed issues. Here is what happened. I actually took part in this transformation and can vouch for how real and powerful Lean is.
- The cost of the manufacturing lines went from $10-$15 Million to $850k-$2.5 million
- Lead time for a lean line was around 6 months instead of 1.5 to 2 years
- Machines were simple, flexible and easily reconfigurable because they were no longer connected via a vast network of conveyor systems. Most machines were set up in cells in some sort of “U” shaped arrangement that allowed for easy access, flow and visual reference of what was going on in the cell at all times.
- Spare parts inventory was cut by over 80% due to simple machine solutions.
- Operators worked on the line to pass parts through the process but it offered the flexibility needed to handle a huge variety of products within a family. We found that even though there was a manual interface requirement, the overall labor minutes per unit actually went down dramatically.
- Changeovers from one model to the next were fast, efficient and mistake proofed.
- Because the equipment was simple, easy to maintain and far less complicated, the overall uptime typically went from 65% to near 95%.
- If one machine in the overall system went down the other machines had small buffers that allowed the cell to keep running while individual machine issues were dealt with.
- The floor space required for the cells was cut by over 75% in most cases. This freed up valuable floor space for expansion for future business.
All in all, Lean Automation has made a huge impact for those manufacturers who have adopted the Lean philosophy and have strived to keep their competitive advantage intact through out the years of their specific business evolution.
So the theme I’m seeing here is, Go Lean or Go to China. You decide.