Editor’s note: Toyota Industries has long been a practitioner of JIT and lean inventory management which require continual supply chain communication. Toyota Motors recently suspended production in Japan due to a suspected cyberattack on a domestic supplier. Toyota Material Handling UK, a global leader in its field, outlines how lean automation can ease supply chain disruptions.
The logistics industry is an essential component of the supply chain, so when warehouses struggle to keep up with demand, retailers, customers and manufacturers suffer. In recent years, numerous solutions have been offered to remedy the situation with extensive interruption. One relatively new solution worth considering is lean automation.
Current issues with the supply chain
The supply chain has seen unprecedented disruption over the past two years, from the pandemic to the long-term impact of Brexit. Delayed deliveries, higher prices and reduced inventory for supermarkets and retailers have been just some of the effects on supply worldwide.
In a recent study by Scurri, 42 percent of warehouse managers said supply chain issues are still an issue for them, with 31 percent seeing issues staffing levels and 31 percent concerned about product importing.
While the worst of the pandemic may seem to be over, manufacturers have to look to the future, the possibility of new variants and further political turmoil that may arise in 2022, all of which will put pressure on an already tenuous situation.
Freight transportation and supply chain processes will continue evolving with sustainable practices in place, affecting transport vehicles and distribution centers as a whole. Manufacturers have to keep up with these sustainability goals from a brand reputation perspective and meet their customers’ expectations.
What is lean manufacturing?
Lean manufacturing has become a buzzword in the logistics industry in recent years, with many manufacturers investigating whether it’s the right practice to improve their operations.
Lean manufacturing entails optimizing processes to minimize wasted materials and inefficient labor. The overall goal of lean production is to improve productivity and reduce costs.
Implementing lean manufacturing in warehouses involves the 5S methodology: sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain.
- Sort – identify the necessary and unnecessary processes throughout warehouse operations.
- Set in order – removing unnecessary processes without sacrificing productivity.
- Shine – cleaning to ensure warehouse layouts aren’t hindering operations.
- Standardize – develop concrete procedures for warehouse workers to understand and follow.
- Sustain – adhere to standardized procedures and commit to improving these as time passes.
Ultimately, if manufacturers want to implement lean manufacturing, they have to be flexible and keep up with the changing demand of the supply chain.
How can lean manufacturing and automation work together?
Some may argue that lean and automation are incompatible due to cost, but the two can work together seamlessly with a flexible warehouse system. Both are employed to satisfy customers at the lowest possible cost.
The most popular automation solution implemented in warehouses is Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs). These machines are primarily used to minimize inventory inaccuracies, reduce time spent on repetitive tasks and reduce the cost of running the warehouse as a whole.
For some warehouses, fully automating a facility is an unattainable goal due to expense, so flexible automation solutions are a better option when implementing lean manufacturing alongside them.
AGVs are ideal for flexible implementation without a complete overhaul of warehouse layouts and systems. They provide modular scalability so businesses can grow with them.
One of the main benefits of implementing automation is the lack of dependency on manual labor. With Brexit resulting in many workers returning to their home countries and the pandemic leading to harsh working environments, staffing is one of the biggest problems within the supply chain.
With lean manufacturing and AGVs, this, and the costs associated with staffing, is less of an issue.
AGVs are designed to streamline operations and eliminate the need for repetitive manual labor. They take over from human operators and manual forklifts for put-away, replenishment, point-to-point transfer, empty pallet handling and more.
Mistakes are therefore much less likely to happen because of human error. Improved inventory accuracy and delivery makes processes more efficient.
Many AGVs are also built with sustainability in mind, being equipped with Lithium-ion batteries, which are more energy-efficient and can help to reduce CO2 emissions. Auto-charging means these trucks can charge quickly without the need for manual labor or extra space which could be used elsewhere.
As a bonus, these machines are also safety-conscious, using built-in safety scanners and obstacle detection units to prevent collisions, which result in further costs and wasted time.
Every part of the supply chain depends on the steady stream of goods. With lean automation, warehouses can work more efficiently, with improved fulfilment accuracy and better-structured delivery, leading to happy customers who will continue using these services.
With the evolving nature of the supply chain and the environment that affects it, manufacturers have to keep up with these new methods and technologies to stay ahead of the inevitable challenges brought about in the future.