6 Ways Lean Manufacturing is Enabled by Collaborative Robots

6 Ways Lean Manufacturing is Enabled by Collaborative Robots

The emerging technologies in flexible, collaborative robotics are a synergistic fit for lean manufacturing.

Traditionally, lean manufacturing environments have eschewed technology in favor of simple visual systems and flexible processes.  A new generation of smarter, faster and lower cost robots is changing that.

The emerging robotic systems are collaborative – they work with the associates on the floor.  This means that instead of requiring 100% process automation in the application, these new robots can be used to automate the appropriate part of the process.  That makes them more flexible and a better fit for the lean world.

The question then becomes what are the use cases where we can apply these new robots and how do they align with lean manufacturing protocols?

Process overview:

In a Lean Manufacturing environment demand pulls production.  Safety stock and batching is eliminated to drive the most efficient production process.  Kanban quantities are pulled in standard containers to the point of use, typically a flexible cell, only when needed.

In this scenario the pull signal generates a pick and transport from the stock area of an exact order kit to the point of use, typically a designated Kanban location, and the empty container is retrieved.  This may require an associate to physically pick, retrieve and transport the container from the interim supplier stocking point to the point of use.

Let’s look at the opportunity for collaborative robots to add value in this process.

1.      Lean Manufacturing is demand driven.

Demand driven strives to match production exactly to the customer specific order configuration.  The end goal is to have production in lock-step with demand to deliver exactly to demand without variance or waste.

Robotic automation has always been good for high-volume, repetitive tasks.  Maturing robot technology can now be applied to lower-volume tasks that up to this point have required human intervention.  This includes better navigation technology that allows the robots to be truly autonomous and smarter algorithms that enable more complex collaborative tasks.

Robots can now support picking and delivering unique component kits for unique customer configured orders.  The collaborative robots are smart enough now to pick and deliver order-specific configurations and this takes the next step towards enabling true demand driven response.

2.      Utilizes flexible manufacturing methods to match supply to demand. (cells)

Flexible manufacturing enables the work cells to flex to both the volumes and configurations of orders.  In best practice these lean repetitive manufacturing flows minimize change-overs. Through cross training associates the cells have the capabilities to flex to the demand-driven customer orders all the way down to a ‘lot of one’.

In this environment the new generation of smarter, collaborative robots have the ability to match the flow and flex to low volume, order specific picks.  These robots can easily be ‘software configured’ to map to changing demand configurations in support of flex and flow of the cells.

3.      Eliminate waste (travel time and touches)

Using robots to pick and transport standardized kits to point of use maps directly to waste elimination (Kaizen).  Traditionally this type of automation was too rigid (conveyors, ASRS) and ran counter the flexibility required by a lean process.  The new flexible robots can automate the process and be quickly reconfigured for a new use without the traditional cost and capital requirements.

Not only can the robots increase the efficiency of the operations in terms of throughput they also eliminate different types of waste in the process.

  • Transportation waste
  • Queue and wait time waste (robots are instantly available)
  • Pick waste
  • Reduction of the number of human touches in the process

In additional the robots are ‘lights out’.  They are not constrained by shifts or skill-set availability.

4.      Utilizes deliver to point of use with standardized containers with small lots to visible Kanban.

Robots will deliver the standardized container replenishment or the order-specific kit directly to the point of use exactly when it is needed.  Traditional automation systems couldn’t manage simple visual signals to drive replenishment (empty bin, square on floor).  Collaborative robots will flex to volume (up and down) without having to add humans.  They will wait patiently for the pull signal and execute with no waste to deliver to the point of use.

5.      Utilize central supermarkets for common components that are pulled to the floor as needed by Kanban.

Robots can also be used the same way to replenish consumables to the cells from a supermarket.  In a supermarket use case the robots will receive the pull signal from the Kanban locations in the cells and automatically deliver a fresh bin replenishment to the point of use and remove the empty bin.  No human interaction or interruption of flow.

6.      A focus on six-sigma quality.

Removing human touches from the pick and transport process removes potential qualify problems.  For example, in an electric static sensitive environment the robot can be configured to always respect the electro-grounding requirements.  A variety of real-time environmental sensors can be built into the robot picking and transport application to monitor the quality being delivered.  The robot becomes a TQC platform.

Robots are perfect for six-sigma and TQC efforts because they don’t make mistakes and they don’t create potentially damaging touches in the pull and deliver process.


A new generation of robots has matured to the point that they will enable many Lean Manufacturing use cases.  A perfect starting point is the pick, transport and delivery of components and kits to the point of use in production.  In the continued push to eliminate waste, drive perfect quality and deliver to direct demand a new cadre of robots is ready to lend a shoulder to the wheel.

Here’s Why Robots Dominated MODEX in 2018

Here’s Why Robots Dominated MODEX in 2018

Robots were all the rage at MODEX this year. Even before you walked through the doors of the World Congress Center in Atlanta you could tell robotics would be a major theme—the show guide alone had 47 mentions of it.

What’s going on in robotics right now that warrants such an outpouring of interest from the material handling industries? What forces are converging to unlock the potential value of robots? Let’s take a look.

A Shift in Market Forces: Amazon, Assortment, and Speed

The first major influencing force is loosely referred to as the “the Amazon effect.” Business practices are shifting in response to changes in how end customers buy, with the continuing trend toward “ecommerce expectations” forcing even traditional companies to change their ways in the face of market pressure.

The shift to ecommerce is compounded by emerging customer sentiment for assortment and speed, spurring a proliferation of low-volume items that still have a high service level expectation. This is the classic ‘long tail’ defined by Chris Anderson in 2006. Supply chains must now develop capabilities that fly in the face of their traditional high-volume, low variability distribution processes.

The new market forces extend beyond ecommerce. One well-known clothing manufacturer at MODEX traditionally shipped cases and packs of underwear to stores at high volume. Now it does individual piece picking to consumers. The staff has created an entirely new workflow for outbound distribution to pick and ship individual pairs of underwear. They are not alone; to meet the demand of ecommerce consumers, many companies are developing processes to pick and ship pieces or eaches. It’s very hard to automate sufficiently to handle this high-mix, high-variability flow. Lacking a suitable option, companies have been forced to throw people at these processes.

Happily, a new generation of robots—autonomous, flexible and collaborative robots—can handle a high mix flow. Robots work with people to drive efficiencies in processes that have traditionally been immune to automation. At MODEX we saw a new generation of robots diving into this void to meet the challenge.

Robot Maturity Creates Interesting Math

Enabling technologies are maturing, trying to keep up with the accelerating shift in market expectations. The building blocks of robotic hardware are continuing to get better, faster and cheaper. Emerging software disciplines around machine learning are making the hardware smarter.

For example, high-resolution cameras and LIDAR have become commercially practical for robot self-guidance. Today’s onboard computing power can process tens of thousands of sensor points, allowing robots to shake off physical tethers and move about on their own. This is a major leap forward in deploying robots in warehouse and distribution applications. No longer tied to wires or waypoints, and fully aware of their environment, self-guided robots can now work alongside humans in existing spaces, opening up the opportunity for true collaboration.

Today the choice is not humans or robots, it’s humans and robots. We’ve arrived at a point where 1 + 1 = 3.

Maturing technology means it is no longer cost-prohibitive to apply robots to lower volume work streams. The machine learning ‘smarts’ of the new generation of robots can handle more variability in tasks. The ability to collaborate with humans coupled with significant intelligence creates a low-cost, highly flexible automated solution that meets the needs of the long tail items in the supply chain.

The Future Belongs to the Efficient

Since before the introduction of the production line—in other words, forever —the supply chain has been under pressure to reduce the cost of material handling. We are talking about labor. Workers are hard to find, expensive to train, and difficult to keep. Every year, seasonal surges in volume drive the scarcity of trained workers over the top.

At the same time, private equity ownership is changing businesses. Because equity ownership drives efficiencies and is not constrained by “the way it’s always been done” there’s a growing appetite to explore innovation. And that is driving new forms of automation.

When robots are deployed collaboratively with humans, efficiency increases by 2 to 6 times. Instead of “throwing people” at seasonal shifts in volume, robots can be dropped into existing distribution environments alongside the people with no need to extensively re-engineer existing processes. Robots can do the work humans don’t want to do or aren’t suited to faster, cheaper and with higher quality. Companies see robots as a key enabler.

Our MODEX Takeaway

It looks like we are on the verge of a robotic revolution in the supply chain. Converging market forces, emerging technologies, and increasing business pressure to automate are creating fertile ground for adoption. Many of the robotic applications on display at MODEX automate existing applications (autonomous floor cleaners, autonomous picking carts, etc.), which are incremental improvements, not game changers. There were also pieces of solutions on display (robotic hands, vehicles). There’s no question that some of the capabilities being developed are solutions in search of the right problem.

The next shift—the big shift—will happen when technology automates use cases that break new ground in autonomy, changing the way humans work in ways formerly dreamed of only in science fiction.

Robots appear to be on the cusp of an exciting breakout. Effective use cases are being put into place, and when the material handling world realizes what is possible, the adoption of robotic systems within supply chain automation is set to explode.