Eli Whitney to robotics: the story of lean

4 minutes to read

Lean manufacturing requires finding solutions aimed at eliminating waste. It reduces production time and costs in warehouses and distribution centers by focusing on value-added tasks. The story behind lean and the core concept behind it is a valuable strategy to increase the bottom line while speeding up the rate of production. The concept was molded by leading scientists, industrial engineers, and innovative organizations.

Robotic solutions have made a tremendous impact on lean manufacturing. To understand the business impacts of automated mobile solutions and their role within lean manufacturing, it’s important to review the origins of lean manufacturing.

The origins of lean

In 1779, Eli Whitney agreed to deliver 10,000 muskets to the U.S. 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. 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.

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 non-value-added work. The findings fueled the Industrial Revolution.

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. The universal notion of lean manufacturing was still unknown and unlabeled, but the massive savings produced by the assembly line were undeniable.


Ford’s original assembly line

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.

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 needed amount.

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 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’s 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 future phase of lean manufacturing

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

To keep up with growing demand, warehouses and distribution centers must work to eliminate more waste and produce a quality product quicker. To do this, it is necessary to embrace robotic solutions.

It’s incorrect to consider robots as simply a replacement for or improvement in standardizing repetitive tasks. Warehouse robotics in place today and still evolving to meet the needs of the warehouse “assembly line,” very much address many of the eight key areas of waste as listed by Ohno and Toyoda. Robots:

  • Remove defects from the logistics process
  • Function as just-in-time solutions to meet current production levels
  • Can be deployed for a variety of functions, eliminating waiting and wasted time
  • Properly utilize the functions of all warehouse assets, including robots and humans, through sophisticated software
  • Streamline transport times and routes by following directed path and learning from each experience to become even more efficient
  • Produce no wasted movement

Robots have powerful advantages: precision, efficiency, data collection, and repetition. Humans also possess inherent strengths: reasoning, emotional intelligence, and generalization.

The right 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 ultimate goal of lean manufacturing.

Want to know more?

Learn about Vecna Robotics’ entire fleet of self-driving vehicles at ProMat 2019. Vecna will be displaying a wide range of vehicles, including its autonomous Tugger and Pallet Jack at booth #S5483. We’ll be showcasing our Automated Material Handling, Hybrid Fulfillment, and Workflow Optimization solutions, along with the self-driving vehicles and technology that fuels them.