Improving the Supply Chain with Lean Automation

Improving the Supply Chain with Lean Automation

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Danielle Whittaker

Editor’s Note: Toyota Industries has long been a practitioner of JIT and lean inventory management that require continuous supply chain communication. Toyota Motors recently suspended production in Japan due to a suspected cyber attack on a domestic supplier. Toyota Material Handling UK, a global leader in its field, explains how lean automation can mitigate supply chain disruption.

The logistics industry is an essential part of the supply chain. So when warehouses struggle to keep up with demand, retailers, customers and manufacturers suffer. In recent years, many solutions have been proposed to address the extended outage situation. A 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 are just some of the effects on global supply.

In one recent study by Scurri42% of warehouse managers said supply chain issues were always an issue for them, with 31% seeing staffing issues and 31% concerned about importing products.

While the worst of the pandemic may seem over, manufacturers need to look to the future, the possibility of new variants and further political turmoil that could arise in 2022, which will put pressure on an already precarious situation.

Shipping costs are expected to remain high, especially in the UK, as Post-Brexit custom controls are introduced and environmental considerations will continue to be at the forefront.

Freight transportation and supply chain processes will continue to evolve with sustainable practices in place, affecting transportation vehicles and distribution centers as a whole. Manufacturers must follow these sustainability goals from a brand reputation perspective and meet the expectations of their customers.

What is lean manufacturing?

Lean manufacturing has become a buzzword in the logistics industry in recent years, with many manufacturers wondering if it is the best practice to improve their operations.

Lean manufacturing involves optimizing processes to minimize material waste and inefficient labor. The overall goal of lean manufacturing is to improve productivity and reduce costs.

Implementing lean manufacturing in warehouses involves the 5S methodology: sort, order, shine, standardize and perpetuate.

  • Sort – identify necessary and unnecessary processes throughout warehouse operations.
  • Tidy up – remove unnecessary processes without sacrificing productivity.
  • Shine – cleaning to ensure warehouse layout does not impede operations.
  • Standardize – develop concrete procedures for warehouse workers to understand and follow.
  • Maintain – stick to standardized procedures and commit to improving them over time.

Ultimately, if manufacturers want to implement lean manufacturing, they need to be flexible and keep up with changing supply chain demand.

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 (AGV). 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 offer modular scalability so businesses can grow with them.

One of the main advantages of implementing automation is the lack of reliance on manual labor. With Brexit causing many workers to return to their home countries and the pandemic causing difficult working environments, staffing is one of the biggest supply chain issues.

With lean manufacturing and AGVs, this and associated staffing costs are 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.

Errors are therefore much less likely to occur due to human error. Improving inventory and delivery accuracy makes processes more efficient.

Many AGVs are also built with sustainability in mind, being fitted with lithium-ion batteries, which are more energy efficient and can help reduce CO2 emissions. Self-charging means these trucks can recharge quickly without the need for manual labor or extra space that could be used elsewhere.

As an added bonus, these machines are also safety conscious, using built-in safety scanners and obstacle detection units to avoid collisions, leading to additional costs and wasted time.

Every part of the supply chain depends on the constant flow of goods. With lean automation, warehouses can work more efficiently, with better execution accuracy and more structured delivery, which leads to satisfied customers who will continue to use these services.

With the evolving nature of the supply chain and the environment that affects it, manufacturers need to keep up with these new methods and technologies to stay ahead of the inevitable challenges that will arise in the future.

Author: Danielle Whittaker

Danielle Whittaker

Danielle Whittaker is Head of Marketing at Toyota Material Handling UK, part of Toyota Industries Corporation, the world’s number one material handling company since 2001. Danielle has written extensively on warehousing and logistics, new trends in automation, the integration of autonomous technologies and automated versus manual work.