Automation has not been discussed a great deal in this book. We have stuck to the fundamentals. One should not read into this, however, that JIT/Lean and automation are mutually exclusive. Rather, it is more meaningful to discuss the processes that use humans and manual machines than the same processes powered by robots. If the fundamentals where humans apply are understood, the same fundamentals will be useful in an automated plant. All the same rules apply. We are not anti-automation.
We are, however, against “automation for the sake of automation.” Many companies have made the costly mistake of thinking that automation will solve manufacturing problems. During the 1980s, manufacturers in the United States invested billions of dollars in automation. Cadillac built what was at the time the most highly automated auto assembly plant in North America and probably in the world. It turned into a nightmare of high-tech problems that took years to sort through. The plant that was to produce six cars per hour, after a year of operation, could do only half that and the quality of manufacture was, to put it charitably, questionable. Two years later, Toyota opened a new plant in Kentucky. Visitors to that plant, expecting to see a high-tech automated production line, were disappointed to find very little in the way of robotics.19 The difference in the philosophies of the two companies becomes obvious. Executive managers at GM believed that by spending enough money, they could buy their way out of the trouble they were in. Toyota knew what it was capable of doing in one of its other low-tech plants that was operating successfully in Japan and simply cloned it down to the last detail in Kentucky. No razzle-dazzle; just good common sense.
Automation may be advantageous in many applications, but if you have not solved the problems in the human-operated versions of those same applications, you are not ready to automate them effectively. If you try, you will automate your problems and will find the robots far less adept at working around them than the humans they replaced.
It is frequently found that the need for automation is decreased or eliminated by converting to JIT/Lean. We certainly found that to be the case in two electronics plants. We were well into a program to build a factory of the future. The building was ready, much of the automation was on hand, and the rest—several million dollars’ worth—was on order when we started the conversion to JIT/Lean. Within months, it had become obvious to everyone, including the designers of the new factory, that we were getting more out of JIT/Lean for almost no investment than could be projected for the new automated plant. The outstanding orders for automation equipment were cancelled and penalties were paid, and we walked away from the whole idea. We had learned in those few weeks of exposure to JIT/Lean that world-class manufacturing equates to JIT/Lean in a total quality environment, not to a factory full of robots and automatic guided vehicles. JIT/Lean and automation are compatible, but one should look long and hard at the need, and the company’s readiness for it, before automating processes.
Having said that, automation clearly has its place in harmony with JIT/Lean. There are many examples of very successful automated plants, especially for high-volume manufacturing. Automation and JIT/Lean are completely compatible. Probably the best example of that is in today’s auto industry. Two such plants have recently come on-line in Alabama and Georgia. Hyundai opened its first American plant in Montgomery, Alabama, in May 2005, making 300,000 vehicles per year there. This plant is one of the first designed from the ground up as a highly automated JIT/ Lean auto production facility. A tour of the plant will convince the fervent skeptic that it has taken the auto industry into a new era in which JIT/Lean and automation are superbly blended. Where traditional auto plants tended to be dark, noisy, grimy, smelly, hot, and frantic in the hustle and bustle, Hyundai’s Montgomery plant is none of that. No matter where you are in the plant, the atmosphere is almost soothing, and it is certainly one of the most pleasant factories of any type that the authors have ever visited. It is a place where the 2,300 employees genuinely seem to enjoy working. And it doesn’t end there. An hour from Montgomery, up Interstate 85 in West Point, Georgia, Kia Motors opened a sister plant of the same size and capacity, using the same automation technology and, of course, JIT/Lean. The first Kia Sorento rolled off that line in November 2009.
Regardless of factory age, and although employing large numbers of workers, the auto industry is a big user of automation whether in North America, Japan, or Korea. And all those plants use JIT/Lean successfully. Remember, JIT/Lean was originally designed for an auto producer, and as automation has been integrated, and as automation capabilities have evolved, JIT/Lean has been there doing its job. In these plants, JIT/Lean is at least as valuable as it is in plants with less automation. Its pull system prevents overproduction of any manufacturing element, and supplies materials at the front end of the process when needed, and does it without the massive inventories of the pre-JIT/Lean era. Whether the processes are operated by humans or robots makes no difference in this regard.
Source: Goetsch David L., Davis Stanley B. (2016), Quality Management for organizational excellence introduction to total Quality, Pearson; 8th edition.