monozukuri and factory automation, production tools of the past
Monozukuri in North America

Making Things

Because you’re reading this, you already know that making things is uniquely satisfying.  When we create useful objects, the sense of accomplishment is deeply hardwired. The goal of the craftsperson is to make better quality products, faster, with little wasted motion or material. The Japanese word monozukuri captures that pursuit of perfection through applied know-how. It can also imply lean manufacturing, as embodied by the Toyota Production System.

Because you’re reading this in English, there’s a good chance you’re working in a lean manufacturing environment, in North America, and have a challenging work life. This article shares insights found working with Japanese manufacturers in North America over three decades, including 10 years at Toyota Motor Manufacturing.

Three reasons why it’s so hard…

…to operate a lean manufacturing operation in North America.

  1. Lean manufacturing is not intuitive
  2. American culture is results-oriented
  3. The three D’s

Lean manufacturing is not intuitive

It was the end of a long day. I’d been arguing with a coworker on the necessity of a queued (FIFO) product flow. His lower cost, simpler, design concept that used a stack (FILO) would have to go back to the drawing board. On the drive home, it hit me in a flash of the obvious.

If lean manufacturing were intuitive, there wouldn’t be a name for it.

It would just be common sense.

[pause for effect]

Lean manufacturing requires great discipline. Most lean practices are about investing effort up front, so that future work can proceed more efficiently. Until one has experienced the powerful benefits firsthand, it just seems like unnecessary effort.

Clearly, lean methods promote dramatic improvements in manufacturing efficiency. If lean is such a powerful competitive advantage, and simple enough for a child to understand, why is it so difficult to implement?

American Culture is Results Oriented

Pop Quiz: Which one of these results is better?

monozukuri process versus results oriented

If you’re in Columbus, you probably chose the one on the left. Two bullseyes. Some success is better than none, right? Results oriented.

If you’re from Nagoya, you may have preferred the results on the right. Only one or two sources of variation remain to be discovered to consistently hit target center, forever. Process oriented.

Practicing lean requires setting aside instant gratification to gain deeper insight and control of a manufacturing process. Delayed gratification with an unclear payoff is a tough sell.
This difficulty extends to cultivating suppliers. Many of the Japanese manufacturers we encounter have long wanted want to localize equipment suppliers for better support and responsiveness. Then eventually abandon the search for North American machine builders because they just don’t “get it”.
  • It should be obvious that a machine consumes the least floorspace possible.
  • Of course you must have single part flow. Otherwise the process has cooked-in variation and it’s difficult to trace problems.
  • No, you can’t design a process where first part after changeover is a disposable “setup part”. [Forehead slap]
  • Components from Fanuc, SMC, Keyence, Nitto-Seiko, Omron, Mitsubishi, Misumi are preferred. Because they’re good value and reliable.

We understand your frustration. And we’re here to help. You can finish reading this later and contact us now.

The Three D’s

Manufacturers have difficulty keeping their plants staffed. Manufacturing continues to have a misplaced reputation of being dirty, difficult, and dangerous. The three D’s. Young people in America are not encouraged to learn skilled trades or work with their hands.

Difficulty staffing and high turnover have been problems for the customers we serve for many years.

Meanwhile, the problem can be exaggerated by public policy incentivizes unemployment as a lifestyle choice. A leg-up between jobs or for those with unusual challenges is something that most of us want to provide for those in need. And an economist might say, without judgment, that paying for unemployment will produce …more unemployment.

[The Cobra Effect is a great example of government intervention gone wrong]

Over the past few weeks, at the bottom of an 8-month recession, we’ve heard from multiple customers who are so short-handed that managers and engineers are on the production line. Not as a genshi-gembutsu exercise. But to fill shipments!  One customer has 150 open positions. Another is interviewing 15 people/day. Almost nobody is passing the first hurdle of “show up” and “pass a drug test”.

Reports of robots taking jobs are wildly disconnected from reality.

When the economy begins to recover, it’ll be difficult for these plants to produce at volume without substantial automation.

Automation Can Help

The spirit of monozukuri can be achieved while automating to adapt to these challenges. Amplified productivity and the reduction of mundane tasks leads to higher job satisfaction and lower turnover. Here are some key points:

Power Tools

Jidoka is the concept of automation with human guidance. Machines should work for people. Not the other way around. The goal of automating is to leverage the talents of your production team by removing mundane tasks from their work. Keep that front of mind.

Automate Process Controls

In a staffing-constrained environment, invest in a higher level of process control automation. You have to leverage the talent you have to unprecedented levels. Daily checks and manual process condition monitoring is good discipline. It’s also time consuming and subject to human error.

The approach of many Japanese manufacturers is to limit capital investment by purchasing systems with minimal features. Then, as the equipment is in production, plant engineers and team members kaizen the process, adding the most relevant features. This is a sound practice. It prevents investing in unnecessary or overly complicated features. It provides manufacturing team members a deep understanding and ownership of the process.

However, when plant output is human-constrained, there’s no available time for these improvements, and lack of automated process controls drags on productivity.

An example of tight process control automation is our approach to robotic dispensing.

Examples of automated process control features:

  • Automated tip condition check
  • Automated Robot TCP setting
  • Confirmation of pressure before and after metering pump
  • Positive displacement pump
  • Servo controlled pump, synchronized with robot motion
  • Vision guided robot path
  • 3D Vision inspection of bead
  • Automated tip cleaning
  • Inline dispense volume check (automatic weighed cup shot)
  • Automated material drum change
  • Barcode verification of correct material and batch/lot traceability.

A side benefit is that automated process controls provide for capturing best-practices. We’ve all seen that machine where 2nd shift sets the knob to 7 and 1st shift turns it back to 4 every morning. That’s hidden variation in your product.

This level of automation increases capital investment. But reduces total production costs. This requires tuning ROI calculations to include  human resource costs and capacity limitations that are less concretely measurable.

Example applications: https://kinemetrix.com/solutions/electric-vehicles/

Invest in Agililty

Agile Automation, as we defined it 25 years ago, began by recognizing that 80% of the cost of automated equipment is not part-specific. All it takes is a creativity and determination to define hard-points between equipment and tooling. This was inspired by observing the press-die relationship in stamping and molding operations. The payback is phenomenal. As a result, our customers succeed, and we grow and prosper together.

Over the years, our definition of Agile has evolved to include tools like  3D vision guided robotics, dexterous gripping, machine learning, and highly advanced controls. And still, it’s interesting that the core concepts are more relevant now than ever.

Agile Automation for a Fast Changing World™

[Notes from presentation at Assembly Expo in 2009]

Where to Go From Here

Making things is enormously satisfying.  Making the tools to help others make things is meta-satisfying. If you’re looking for ways to leverage your team to the next level, we’d like to help you compete and win.  Contact us.