Lean and automation in modern warehouse production

In order to be able to conduct lean in a good way you should keep the value chain as simple as possible to be flexible, with another word agile. I have met colleagues in the industry who believe you should be restrictive to investing in new technology like automation solutions to avoid be locked in a certain method of working or a certain workflow.

In my opinion, there is no conflict between technologies and lean, on the contrary, what is important is that the technology solution is flexible and future-proof, so that technical investments will not be what in lean called “monuments”. Continuous improvement requires that you are able to rearrange if necessary, a “monument” cannot change or move it is just in the way and not flexible.

Automation is very volume efficient compared to a conventional warehouse, and you can achieve a very high picking speed. But just like when you buy new software, it is extremely important that you make a good preparatory work before investing in automation. Look at the needs right now as well as an analysis of future needs. When it comes to automation solutions I have seen many “monuments” when I visiting colleagues and I think the reason is that these solutions is expensive investments, it is common to buy a solution that is slightly too big. You may fear that you cannot make any more investments in a long time so you may as well buy a “giant” solution. The consequence is that you have to pick in large batches, this means that the flow is erratic and uneven, and that the system will be slow and cumbersome because it is not filled up with the goods as intended. It is better to look at systems that is scalable. Buying a solution that suits your purposes right now, but it will be financially beneficial to scale up in the future when demand increases. In this way, you get a good efficiency from the start. It is important that you do not end up in a batch and queue mindset that makes the flow unevenly and inefficient

Flexibility is the key to any investment, there is a reason that agile has become a trendy word. I know many companies with e-commerce and/or omni-channel is very careful regarding automation and there is a good reason for that. It would be devastating for a company not to be able to deliver as expected due to lack of capacity. It is extremely important you invest in an agile automation solution who can handle peaks like “singles day and black Friday or Christmas for example.

Another important thing when buying a new automation system and want to use it in the lean optimization is to have expertise in the company to take advantage of and use all the functions that the system offers. A modern WMS and/or WCS is complex and it is not usually intuitive. If you do not have expertise in the company on the system, the risk is that business becomes static and not evolves. Software and automation provider consultants set up the system in its basic configuration, and then no one can take it to the next level. Unfortunately, I have encountered such examples in some companies.

You can combine technology and lean. The keywords are scalability and agile. The automation should help to remove muda, not create muda. The technology should facilitate lean and together it can become an unbeatable combination.

Roberth Karlsson

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