Combining lean and automation in warehouse production

In order to be able to conduct lean in a good way you should keep the value chain as simple and flexible as possible. I have met colleagues in the business who understands that you should be restrictive to investing in new technology like automation solutions to avoid be locked in to 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.

Flexibility is the key to any investment, there is a reason that agile has become a trendy word. If we look at the supply chain and warehouse that I work with, it is mainly software that is used as technical optimization tools. Software is easy to develop and change based on needs. It is a agile tool if you use a well-established vendor.

The important thing is that you as a user control the software and to customize and optimize your business by using it, there are many examples where companies adjust operations for the software to work and then you have failed. I have unfortunately seen many cases of this. It is also important that you invest in software that is optimal for your business and is future proof. A company buys a new WMS or supply chain management system only once so it is hugely important, and in many cases crucial for the business that you do a thorough and good job in buying process. It is also important to ensure that there is a future for the software vendor so that the software continues to evolve.

Another important thing when buying a new system and 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 supply chain management system or WMS is enormously 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 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.

There must also be management functions in systems that help and support for continuous improvement. It is very important. One example is optimization systems that uses RFID in picking forklifts to see the driving pattern in the warehouse in this way you can see where there are bottlenecks or long distances between picking etc. RFID is used more and more in the supply chain to have a transparent logistics, and to acquire data to help optimize etc. Another example is resource optimization tools in WMS that helps to visualize where you need to increase by more resources, or where you have too many resources.

In a warehouse, it is common nowadays to invest in automation solutions. Often it is very volume efficient compared to a conventional warehouse, and that 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. 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. This way, you get out 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 inefficiently.

Remember: technology can be a tremendous help for the continuous improvement and development of lean in the company if it used properly. In particular combined with competent software systems in supply chain and warehouse. The important thing is to make good preparation and procurement of the systems. It is also extremely important that you make sure to have good competence in-house so that you can quickly start working with systems to optimize operations. The systems should help to remove muda, not create muda. When it comes to automation solutions, it is especially important not to create “monuments”. Scalability and agile is the key words in these investments.

In summary, You can combine technology and lean. The keywords are scalability and agile. The technology will facilitate lean and together it can become an unbeatable combination.

Roberth Karlsson

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