Factory Automation

How Lean Automation Contributes to a Lean Production Process

When we picture automation, it’s often big multi-station systems with feeders, conveyors, and testing all running with little to no manual intervention. Those systems have been maximizing efficiency in industries like automotive for decades. However, high-volume, low-mix automation solutions are not the only option. 

With the advent of technology like collaborative robotics, automation can be implemented as free-standing stations using a lean approach. High-mix, low-volume assembly operations can take advantage of properly designed lean stations to achieve lean manufacturing objectives including reduced waste and improved quality.

Lean automation can offer multiple benefits:

  • Fast implementation
  • Low capital expenditure
  • Reduced waste
  • Quick ramp up
  • Minimal maintenance

Have a lean system up and running quickly

How quickly depends on the specific implementation. First, we need to look at your overall process to find the best opportunity to implement a lean automation system.  We’ll use lean principles to evaluate your process by asking several questions:

  • Does every step add value?
  • Can any steps be removed?
  • Which steps can be improved?
  • Where can waste be reduced?
  • How can inefficiencies be eliminated?

When we’re looking at adding free-standing robots to a manual process, we’ll likely be considering force-limited collaborative robots that move slower than the types of robots used in automotive assembly. The best station for a collaborative robot isn’t necessarily a process that needs to be done quickly.

High-potential opportunities to implement a collaborative robot include processes that are:

  • Repetitive
  • Precise
  • Dangerous

Robot welding systems are a common independent-station application. Note that even though a collaborative-type robot can be used for a dangerous operation like welding, additional appropriate safety guarding must be designed into the system.

Minimize costs with a lean automation system

An experienced robot systems integrator knows how to right-size robots to suit the application. That means you won’t pay extra for a heavy-duty robot to do a task that a lighter robot could accomplish. 

In addition to the robot itself, tooling is another important cost consideration. By choosing a unit that can use existing off-the-shelf components, tooling costs are minimized. 

When using a robot for an assembly operation, parts presentation must be considered. If a complex feeding mechanism will be required, that particular process or end-of-arm tooling may not be ideal.

We’ll look at processes that can use robotic automation with minimal customization and no special end-of-arm tooling or complex parts presentation required. Those constraints will help speed implementation and minimize costs.

Finding ways to use one robot for more than one station is an excellent way to get the most out of an investment in automation. A robot that can easily change end-of-arm tooling can be used for multiple tasks, as long as other requirements such as payload are met. 

Using one robot for more than one task isn’t an approach we would recommend for a high-volume operation. But, for a low-volume operation, moving one unit between two stations is often cost effective. This strategy can even be implemented in phases, with the robot first used in one station as proof of concept.

Improve quality to reduce waste

In addition to the precision inherent in robotic systems, new vision capabilities are making robots an excellent choice to increase quality levels. By increasing the percentage of in-process and finished items that pass quality iinspections, waste can be significantly reduced.

Ramp up right away

With a lean automation system that’s not heavily customized, there is less to test and adjust at both the factory acceptance and site acceptance steps. Training is also simplified. The collaborative robots that are typically used in a lean automation setup are often designed with an easy-to-use interface that requires minimal training. 

Simplify maintenance with a lean design

By implementing a robotic system that uses off-the-shelf components instead of customized tooling, replacement parts are typically readily available. And, specific expertise for the custom machine isn’t necessary to perform standard repairs. Standard repairs should be able to be done by any technician qualified to repair robots from that manufacturer.

Right-sizing automation is critical

A robotic systems integrator with experience implementing lean systems can ensure that the robots specified will provide as many benefits as possible, including low initial investment, minimal customization, fast implementation, and simplified maintenance.

Want to learn more about using a lean automation system for a specific production process? Contact us at Ehrhardt Engineered Systems at: 877-386-7856 or email us at