I was thumbing through the latest online issue of Industry Week and came across an article that raised my hackles: What Happened to the "Auto" in Automation? Why? Because IW, of all rags, was promoting robots. Let’s dive into it…
The headlines blared: "North American Robot
Orders Declined 17% in First Quarter." Bad news? Yes, but the good side
is that "non-automotive orders jumped 36%.
The good side may even be better, adds Rohit
Khanolkar, engineering manager at Applied Manufacturing Technologies.
His speculation hinges on whether the rest of manufacturing has come to
realize how much the automotive industry gained from the lean
flexibility of robotic automation. "The automotive industry has taken a
lead role in selecting robots as their preferred flexible automation
solution," Khanolkar says.
Yeah, right. Give me a second to get myself off the floor and stop laughing. The auto industry really is leading the world right now, isn’t it? Ok, there’s also a little fuel cost thing skewing, or skewering, the industry a bit. And remember that old Superbowl commercial where GM disrepects robots? But let’s move on before I start laughing again…
"Industries other than automotive need to
realize the benefits that robots can add to their manufacturing
processes. Robots are accurate, flexible, programmable, can work in
environments not suited for humans, and more importantly, they are
repeatable with a high degree of accuracy. These attributes directly
contribute to end product quality, which in turn reduces scrap and
rework — a requirement of lean manufacturing."
And they can’t think. When was the last time a robot submitted an improvement suggestion? Participated in a kaizen?
The article goes on to describe more of the glories of robotics, stats on how many bazillion have been deployed, etc. I won’t bore you with that; by now you know my opinion.
But then, since I felt I needed another good laugh, I clicked on a "related article" titled Seeking the Lean Potential of Robots. I fully expected to be wowed by more robotic godliness, especially since the article was written by the same author as the first, John Teresko. I was wrong.
"Avoid the mistake of buying a robot and just
being content with the expectation that lean process results will
automatically occur." That’s only the first caution from John Burg,
president of Ellison Technologies Automation. His caveats continue:
"Improve the task or process before automating it — and get your
organization to agree to the cultural shift that a lean commitment
requires. Only then will robot tending of a machine tool or process pay
Holy cow… he gets it! And believe it or not, I’m not necessarily against all robots; I’m against the danger of robots covering up or automating waste.
He recommends a formal investigation to
validate the presence of lean processes. "Go beyond merely accepting
verbal claims from the engineering department. Despite their assurances
on lean, we often discover that machine operators are compensating for
a whole host of inefficiencies in the cell.
"In at least 70% of our robot implementations,
we find that production management may not be fully aware of the cell
operating deficiencies that operators have to contend with."
Burg says, "The conventional goals are
double-digit performance gains, otherwise nothing is done. And with
robots, in an opportunistic sense, U.S. users tend to look at the
automatons as a solution while they’re actually only potential
The other side of the coin is that a proper lean analysis may
also show that there is no case for a robot implementation, adds Burg.
"Correctly assessing the lean opportunity for robots is a significant
consideration — both for the customer and for us."
Remember, John Burg is the President of a robotics company. And he’s saying that "a proper lean analysis may show that there is not case for a robot implementation." Hallelujah… there are a few good robotics guys out there! At least one. In fact, I’d suggest that if you are contemplating using robots, you should contact Mr. Burg to get an honest assessment. It sounds like he’d have the guts to assess your lean implementation first.
The greatest strategic advantage, Burg adds,
is to use lean practices as a competitive tool to maintain U.S.
manufacturing — to save the facility from outsourcing.
What a breath of fresh air.