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What is Automation?

What is automation? It is the act of adding of a mechanical device to a machine that allows it to operate with reduced, non-continuous input from an operator. This allows the operator to do other tasks while the machine is running.

In Lean, automation serves the same role it does in any other manufacturing system. It separates people from machines. This allows people to do fewer dirty, dumb, or dangerous tasks and helps them be more productive. Automation also powers the Lean principle of respect for people. It takes them away from mindless tasks, and lets them work on more interesting jobs.

Automation is generally accomplished by using a mechanical device on the shop floor and software programming in the office. In both cases, a repetitive, labor intensive task is done by machine with little or no human intervention.

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Automation is different from mechanization. A drill press that an operator has to pull the lever on is manual. If a motor is added so all he does is hold a button down, the process is mechanized, but is not automated. If he can press a button and walk away, the process includes automation.

Automation, however, is often unintelligent. When a bit of decision-making is added to the automation, letting it detect abnormal conditions and stop itself or trigger a warning light (an andon), it becomes a jidoka system. Jidoka is essentially automation with an human touch.

There is a common belief that automation and Lean don’t work well together. In truth, jidoka, an advanced form of automation, is one of the central pillars of Lean. What doesn’t work well with Lean are expensive machines that are too big for a process. When many people think of automation, they immediately think of large CNC machines, or robotic assembly lines.

The key concerns that must be addressed when using automation in Lean

  1. That the machine doesn’t have long setup times, driving up batch sizes
  2. That the machine is flexible and can adjust to changing processes and products
  3. That the automated machine doesn’t take up excessive space, disrupting flow.

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