Walk through our shop, (or take the Wiley Metal drone fly-by,) and you’ll see we’re a high variety, low volume operation. Yes, we take on longer runs but we’re not the kind of high-volume business that uses a lot of automation. It just doesn’t yield sufficient “Return on Investment (ROI)”. That could change in the future though, given what we’ve been learning about “Lean Robotics” and cobots.

We discussed cobots here on the TikiTalk blog many months ago, (see, “Why a Collaborative Robot May Be Your Next Manufacturing ‘Hire’”,) so we’ll spare you the primer. What does need explaining though is this concept of “Lean Robotics”. Then with that out of the way we can talk about how cobots fit with lean thinking.

Lean Manufacturing and Automation

You’re probably familiar with “Lean”. It’s about cutting out waste and implementing methods of continuous improvement. Toyota pioneered the concept, perhaps from necessity because in their early days they were pretty starved of resources. (Hard to believe now of course!) Being forced to use what they had to hand meant tapping in to the brainpower of their employees and focusing on small improvements. It led to kanban, poke yoke, SMED and all the other tools manufacturers use to cut costs and leadtime.

So what does this have to do with robotics?

On the surface, not much. Robotic manufacturing often seems to mean big, complex cells that cost a fortune and take forever to implement. With through-the-roof implementation costs utilization becomes a key performance metric, driving users to keep the cell fed at all costs. Then, when that product goes away, reconfiguring the cell for the next product family is another massive undertaking.

Not exactly what we’d call lean.

“Lean robotics” is a different attitude towards implementing automation. It’s a minimalist approach that keeps costs down and maximizes implementation speed. Increased ROI is one benefit, but it also makes robotic automation more accessible to small and medium manufacturers.

Explaining “Lean Robotics”

It’s a concept and approach to robotic automation put forward by a guy called Sam Bouchard. Sam is the founder and CEO of Robotiq, a manufacturer of collaborative robots, or cobots for short.

In his book, “Lean Robotics” Sam explains that he first found it incredibly difficult to explain the advantages of his cobots over conventional machines. Later, as understanding grew, he realized he was guiding every customer through the same implementation process. Realizing it would make sense to document that process, his book was born.

In “Lean Robotics” Sam proposes four principles that should govern how we think about robotic cell design, integration and operation. These are:

  • People before robots
  • Focus on the robotic cell’s output
  • Minimize waste
  • Leverage your skills

If you want details we suggest you download Sam’s book, Lean Robotics, from his website. What we’ll do here though is summarize the main ideas so you can see why we’re so interested in cobots.

1. People before Robots

Sam makes two points. First, robots must be safe. Though he doesn’t labor the point, ensuring safety adds cost and complexity to conventional robotic cells. Second, robots should be easy for anyone to use. Supporting this ease-of-use idea, Sam notes that conventional robots need expert programmers, and that’s a skill smaller companies find hard to hire. In addition, Sam suggests that if anyone can teach a robot factory workers will find clever new ways of putting these machines to work.

2. Focus on the Robotic Cell’s Output

Lean manufacturing is about doing only those things that add value. Sam argues robotic cells should be engineered the same way. Resist the temptation to add tasks or do things because they’re cool: just decide what’s the minimum that must be done to bring the product nearer completion, and automate that.

A phrase he likes to use is “minimum viable robotic cell.” This, he explains, “is the robotic cell with just enough features (and no more) that can reliably create value for its customer.”

3. Minimize Waste

Waste minimization is a central tenet of Lean, and you might argue that robotic cells are inherently lean. After all, they provide one-piece flow which helps reduce inventory and they reduce scrap. Sam argues a robotic cell can do more though.

First, he suggests that underutilized human potential is a waste. Put another way, people in manufacturing operations could often be doing more useful or important work. Leave the repetitive manual tasks to the robots and let people exercise their creative problem-solving skills.

Second, Sam sees a lot of waste in how conventional robots are implemented. He believes time is wasted in detailed planning, reviewing, re-planning and so on. For a solution, he proposes Manufacturing Engineers find ways to cut waste out of their capital purchasing processes. This will lead to faster implementation and therefore better ROI.

4. Leverage your Skills

This principle is about doing robotic integration yourself, with in-house resources, rather than relying on an external integrator. The thinking here is that to maximize ROI from your purchase you’ll want to reconfigure the cell and redeploy the robot several times during its life. Yes, you could hire an integrator each time, but that takes time and money. Plus, the integrator will never know your products and processes as well as you. Instead, by doing it yourself each time you learn more about what you can do with a robot. Of course, this assumes your robot is easy to use.

The Cobot Contribution

Cobots are easy to teach and they’re intrinsically safe, (although you must always do a risk assessment on every robotic cell.) In other words, they’re exactly the kind of machine needed for lean robotics.

Let’s go through those four principles again.

  • People before robots. Safe to use? Check. So easy to use that anyone can teach one a task? Check.
  • Focus on the robotic cell’s output. Cobots aren’t fancy, they just grasp and move, following the same path every time. There’s no need for simulation or elaborate control architectures, just plug ’em in and turn ’em on.
  • Minimize waste. Because a cobot is so easy to set up and teach, why put effort into planning? Just set it up and work out what you want to do on the fly. You’ll get it adding value in far less time.
  • Leverage your skills. We can see how a cobot might be a bit intimidating when first unpacked. Yes, it’s a robot but it’s not going to kill anyone if used incorrectly, and neither does it take a Masters degree in Computer Science to use it. Put one out on the shop floor and pretty soon someone from Production with a bit of curiosity and some practical skills will come forward with ideas for things it can do. When that happens, let them run with it!

The Bottom Line

We’re always hearing how automation is great for improving quality and cutting costs. Fact is though, for many small-to-medium sized manufacturers, including metal fabricators like us, automation rarely makes much financial sense.

“Lean robotics” is a new way to look at this problem. The takeaway is that a robot is just a tool, and if it’s easy to use your people will find ways of putting it to work. Cobots have that “ease-of-use” factor missing from conventional robots, and that’s why we’re paying close attention. You won’t find our shop full of robots just yet, but maybe that day is drawing nearer.