Future of Lean: is a robotic motion a waste?

Motion and transportation count among the 7 basic muda or wastes, that should be eliminated or at least reduced to their bare minimum in order to be leaner.

Now, with the probable rise of robotics, will robotic motion (and transportation) still be considered a waste?

The Lean definition of waste is any consumption of resources, including time, that does not add value. Motion and transportation do not transform nor modify parts or products to something of greater value for customers.

If the transportation means or resources used to move parts or products change to high-tech solutions, the definition of waste remains valid. They may reduce the related time, the strain on human operators, be autonomous but whatever, moving or transporting something is still a (necessary) waste.

The same applies for robotic motions. Thanks to their multi axis construct, robots may be more efficient in motions than humans, thus reducing time, nevertheless, the motion remains a waste.

What about vacuum cleaning robot,robotic lawn mowers or autonomous vehicles?

These devices deliver a service a customer is ready to pay for: having a clean floor, a cut lawn or being transported somewhere. In the current state of technology, there is no way around a moving device.

I am not aware of self cleaning flooring and clean room solutions may not be affordable for households.

Motion and transportation are in those cases part of the value-adding process. That said, if the vacuum cleaner, lawn mower or autonomous car travels more than necessary for purpose, the excess motion/transportation is… a waste.

Any thoughts to share? Use the comments.


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The cobot controversy part 2

The new robots arrive, the humans remain

This post is a personal reflection about a statement of German Labor Union “IG Metall” posted on the union’s Website https://www.igmetall.de/robotik-tagung-2015-17975.htm titled “The new robots arrive, the humans remain(Published November 26th, 2015 and still online June 2017).

From the original article, in short

The article opens on this statement: “A new generation of lightweight robots comes into the factories. IG Metall sees more opportunities than threats. Provided that the human being plays the leading role in the cooperation with the new robots, IG Metall chairman Jörg Hofmann emphasized at the robotics conference in Berlin. The new robots come: smaller, lighter and closer to humans (collaborative robots, i.e. cobots). IG Metall wants to take advantage of the opportunities created by the increasing use of lightweight robots and new forms of cooperation between man and machine in industry.”

The tone is set. The union is not opposed to see increasingly installing robots near humans, neither the idea of collaboration between humans and cobots, provided the human keeps the upper hand.

The union recognizes the opportunities the robots bring in: reduction of human exposure to monotone or health-endangering work and creation of new, qualified activities. It mentions nothing about extending the employability of aging workers though, like other authors highlight as an additional benefit.

In order to develop a new kind of cooperation between man and machine, new forms of work have to be encouraged with expanded job profiles and possibilities for action for the employees. For this, other qualifications are certainly necessary than today” explained Hofmann on the occasion of the meeting before works councils and representatives from science and politics.

At the same time, however, it is necessary to prevent people from being marginalized in the “ballet of lightweight robots“.

Ballet, I assume, is to be understood here as the choreography of man and cobot working together. For example: the cobots grabs a part, moves and present it to the worker and while the cobot is holding it, the worker can work on it. Once the human cycle done, the cobot will take the part away and grab a new one for a new cycle.

“Under the assumption that the exploitation potentials of the new robot generation are actually exhausted and the human robot collaboration is co-designed by works councils and trade unions”.

I am not sure about the meaning of the “assumption” but it is clear that the union wants to have a say about the future human-robot collaboration.

The article goes on with a warning:  in future, manless factories are not an option. While the worker teaches the robot, literally guiding him by hand thanks to ease of use, makes it possible to give the employees a new role.

The use of the new robots also offers opportunities to improve competitiveness and secure employment,” says the IG Metall chairman. It is a matter of intelligently combining the use of people and machines, which means that labor costs are, in sum, lower, while qualification and ergonomics are at a higher level. Added value creation and employment can therefore remain in Germany.

Article analysis: understanding the vantage point

In order to fully get the (underlying) messages of the speech, some premises should be reminded:

  • Labor unions in Germany are reputed as consensus-driven as compared to the traditional French unions which are more hard-liners, opponents and politically-ideologically driven
  • The hype around robot, automation, big data, machine learning and so on is not likely to fade soon
  • The rise of the robot in manufacturing, in whatever shape and size they’ll come, is an accepted fact
  • Beyond a government supported program, Germany developed a brand: Industrie 4.0
  • If Germany would refrain developing and using robots, cobots, etc. for the sake of safekeeping human jobs, another competing nation would take advantage of it
  • The development of those technologies and Germany’s leadership is key to ensure a future for German high-tech manufacturing equipment makers
  • Labor unions are primarily seeking to protect and improve workers’ conditions and benefits
  • Labor union’s existence makes sense as long as there is (human) labor and the union’s power is a function of their members count
  • The speech was delivered during a meeting before works councils and representatives from science and politics (not business)
  • The speech is a mixture of showing openness and ambition to play a key role in defining rules and use cases altogether. In order to maintain the union’s acceptance about robots, some (limiting) conditions must be accepted by the robots promoters / employers: the human workers keep the upper hand, should not be driven out (maneless factories) neither marginalized by automation.

It is suggested that all the automation frees the human worker from dangerous and mundane tasks, improves ergonomics (working conditions at large) and provides opportunities to enrich the job content and raise workers’ qualifications.

Beyond the stance, wishful thinking?

Let’s switch to investors’ and industrial engineers’ point of view. There is no point in systematically letting the humans have the upper hand when it comes to automation. It probably will not give an organization a competitive advantage nor systematically improve the process.

In some cases, unmanned factories are an option from the point of view of optimal investment and operations, so why should it be a taboo?

Why should investors and engineers agree to let the (probable) weakest link in the process (humans) have the upper hand? And why, if not because of threat, would they let works councils and trade unions co-design new processes?

Accepting those limitations while competition will probably not is accepting to join a race with self-inflicted handicaps.

It makes sense in politically correct parlance and for trying to avoid new luddites smashing the expensive new technology in anger.

Personal conclusion

My personal conclusion is that unions see the threat of losing their power as the number of workers will plummet, thanks to new technologies. On the other hand, fighting against new technology would endanger Germany’s leadership in the machine-tool and manufacturing equipment, right during the Industrie 4.0 hype.

Losing the leadership to foreign makers could also lead to lose jobs, hence weaken the unions’ importance.

Unions need to show their subscribers that they care to protect their interest in this uncertain working future and no one would benefit from a new luddites uprising.

I assume the German union goes the Realpolitik way and tries to find an acceptable compromise.

Comments welcome.

You may also like: The cobot controversy – part 1

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Reading between the lines: Safran puts Cobots at the Forefront of the Factory of the Future

Collaborative robots (cobots) are trendy and a must have for any organization claiming to go for the factory of the future. An article on Safran’s corporate website (May 2017) explains how the high-tech group is putting Cobots at the Forefront of the Factory of the Future. Of course, it caught my attention.

But what is hype and what is real necessity? The second question reading the article is about the emphasized statement that machines will not replace people. Could it hide the fear of some new luddites smashing the new robots?

The article in a nutshell

The article is an interview of the Head of the Group’s “Ergonomics” program. The article’s highlights are:

  • Safran defines 3 types of cobots:
    • those controlled by an operator located within the immediate vicinity of the system (co-manipulation)
    • those controlled remotely (teleoperation)
    • exoskeletons; electromechanical systems providing active assistance to employees
  • Safran’s guiding principle is to combine the capabilities of a robot with the skills of a human. The article highlights in bold letters that “At no point will machines replace people, they will simply assist them with their work. It is a real partnership”.
  • Cobots enable the employability of aging workers or those with disabilities as well as relieving workers from low value-added tasks.
  • Work organisation and content has to be reviewed, for instance how workers can be part in cobots maintenance
  • Cobots bring flexibility at low cost when compared to traditional robots.

More than hype?

My first question when reading the article’s title was: is the experimentation with cobots a must have for a high-tech company or a real necessity?

Well, it seems that in France at least, the sustained growing activity in aerospace industry meets some difficulties to attract qualified workers and young people eager to work as qualified mechanics. Cobots may well be part of the solution. If work is made easier and high-tech goes to the shopfloor, younger people may consider this career path.

Extend and keep the aging but highly qualified workforce is another expected benefit from bringing in collaborative robots.

Flexibility, with regards to low volumes and high variability is another benefit that can be checked as valid.

From my understanding, cobots are more than fancy new high-tech toys for geeks in industrial engineering. There are real issues to be solved and cobots may be, at least a part of the solution. Cobots and their applications being relatively new, experimentation is still required. Over time, the reality of expected benefits will show, as well as potential new usage and applications.

What about the statement “At no point will machines replace people”?

On the one hand, given the need to replace aging and retiring workforce and to cope with increasing activity in aerospace industry, as well as the nature of the jobs, it is most probably true that machines will not drive human workers out of business soon.

Full automation is hard to imagine with the low volume high mix that characterizes building aircrafts or aircraft equipment.

On the other hand, layoffs are periodically reported in this industry. They happen when companies merge, plants are relocated or when the sales are going down. For people fearing to lose their jobs, the coming of machines purposely installed to reduce the part of human work can be seen as a threat.

Therefore, preventing any new luddites smashing the cobots is understandable.

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Can new luddites smash robots in anger?

It strikes me how many robot and cobot promoters downplay the risk for human to lose jobs to automation, digitalization and the raise of new generation of robots. The fact that human workers will remain in business seems too forcefully highlighted to be true. Therefore my question: can new luddites smash robots in anger?

According to wikipedia, the Luddites were a group of English textile workers and weavers in the 19th century who destroyed weaving machinery as a form of protest, fearing that machines would replace their role in the industry. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite

When it comes to promote the new generations of robots and especially those able to work safely in close proximity with humans, and even collaborate (cobots, made of “collaborative” and “robot”), the benefits put to the forefront is to help workers alleviating dangerous or health-hazardous situations. Cobots would take care of lifting and manipulating heavy loads and/or the repeated motions to grasp, move and hold parts, while the human worker would concentrate on value-adding tasks.

For those workers which would be made unnecessary thanks to automation, their future would look good nevertheless, because they would be recycled in higher-value jobs, like industrial engineering, continuous improvement and many other occupations.

It looks to me like painting the future a bit too blue and who can reasonably believe all this wishful thinking?

Knowing that most of the human tasks can be transferred to robots, Artificial Intelligence and automation, or a combination of all, can we believe that all this high-tech in development and the significant investments required will be made only to improve workers’ jobs?

Human workers will remain the weak link in automated processes in many aspects, beginning with variability: variability in availability, mood, health, discipline, focus, speed of execution, performance…

Why would investors refrain to reap all the benefits of the new solutions?

And if some would, as an act of humanity, I believe many would not have much hesitation and once the competitiveness is challenged, I cannot believe that care for humanity would count for much.

So if human workers cannot be kept in their jobs, they have to be “recycled”.

Yet the speed of progress with autonomous systems is such that most unnecessary human actors will be out of occupation before they can convert to a new one.

Besides, who can believe that ALL outperformed workers can be recycled into specialized technicians, industrial engineers, problem solvers and continuous improvers?

Who can believe we would need so many, if need at all?

My assumption is that the robot and automation promoters fear a new luddites uprising who could smash the high-tech in anger for losing their jobs.

But unlike the 19th century workers, the threatened contemporary ones have overall higher education, access to instant information. It can’t be long they understand the risks by their own or by someone else’s analysis.

Therefore, it is necessary to downplay what could happen?

Comments welcome.

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Cobots: more cooperation than collaboration

Cobot is the contraction of “collaborative” and “robot”, name and concept of a new kind of robots able to work literally hand-in-hand with humans without a safety fence between them.

fraunhoferCobots are hype and the word tends to become generic for any kind of robot working in close proximity of humans. A study from the German FRAUNHOFER – INSTITUT für Arbeitswirtschaft und Organisation IAO (2016) about first experiences with lightweight robots in manual assembly* distinguishes cooperation from collaboration.

*“Leichtbauroboter in der manuellen Montage – einfach einfach anfangen. Erste Erfahrungen von Anwenderunternehmen

This post is in great part my translation of the original study, with my personal comments.

>Lisez-moi en français

The study summarized different combinaisons in the use of robots near and with human operators, leading the authors to propose 5 classes:

  1. Robotic cell in which a robot operates on its own, fenced-off from humans by a safety fence. In such a case there is no human-robot collaboration.
  2. Coexistence of robot and human, a case in which both are close to each other but without a safety fence, yet have no common workspace. The robot has its own dedicated space distinct from the human one.
  3. Synchronized work: an organization in which human and robot share a common workspace but only one being active at a time. The work sequence is like a choreography between human and robot.
  4. Cooperation: the two “partners” work on their own tasks and can share a common space but not on the same product nor same part.
  5. Collaboration: an organization with common and simultaneous work on the same product or part. Typically the robot handles, presents and holds a part while the operator works on it.

Based on this classification, the studies reveals that collaboration is still seldom. Workers and robots work side by side on their own dedicated tasks, letting me conclude that for the time being, “cobots” are more cooperative than collaborative.

Motivation for investing in this kind of more expensive robots is mainly productivity improvement and secondary objectives are improvement of ergonomics (avoid heavy lifting for example) and testing innovative technologies.

The choice of this kind of solutions requires also new planning and management tools as well as consulting. New standards and regulations are in preparation that must be managed by companies themselves, not the system provider. All this carries additional costs.

Companies with no or only limited experience with these kinds of robots remain hesitant, therefore the authors of the study recommend to implement step wise, starting simple and going from human-robot coexistence to collaboration.

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Should robots look human to be likeable?

I wonder why so many robots projects are based on human-like androids. The human body is a great system with some mechanical complexity, but also many limitations. Thus, copying the human body for robots may end up in sub-optimized and over complex systems.

I assume the idea about having robots around us as cybernetic domestic servants, pets or caretakers in near future is scary, therefore scientists and inventors try to give their machines a more familiar look.

But should robots look human to be likeable?

Lego’s interpretation of R2D2 and C3PO

Remembering the Star Wars droids, the android C3PO looks somewhat human, is knowledgeable about many things but clumsy. R2D2 looks more like an industrial vacuum cleaner or an oversized can, but so smart and effective.

Both are likeable despite their respective looks, talents and limitations.

Another example is the couple made of Wall-e and his gynoid-friend Eve. The first is believed to be male and looks like a cubic panzer with binocular periscope while Eve is identified as female (not only by her name) despite her far lesser sensitivity than Wall-e.

Again, these two are likeable, and whatever happens to any of the four, good or bad, moves us. The human-like look of a robot does not seem to be very influencing their likeability.

About the authorIf you have an idea why so many robot projects go for androids, feel free to share in a comment!

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How lean can help shaping the future – compact factories

The factory of the future has to comply with several constraints, among which the energy efficiency and respect of environment, the latter meaning nature as well as neighborhood.

Factories of the future will probably be close to housing areas, not only because in some areas space is scarce but because commuting is a major source of waste and annoyance.

Factory leanness is directly and positively correlated to its compactness. The more compact the factory the less travel distance within. Distance induces transportation and motion wastes. The shorter the distance, the less these types of waste.

The shorter the distance, the shorter the lead time hopefully.

Compact factories do not allow large inventories. I remember Japanese factories and the mini trucks; if you cannot store, deliver more often! (not sure about energy efficiency and environment friendliness of the trucks milk runs though).

Factories of the future will be built in flow-logic, unlike their centuries-old ancestors in which flows are just nightmares. Actual greenfields easily supercede brownfields and elder facilities on this point.

Best would be scalable units that can be plugged one to another, like plug-and-play shelters having some commodities ducts and cables pre-installed/pre-wired. Among them, Smart Industry or Industrie 4.0 (Europe) standard industrial buses for connecting anything out of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Such shelters could be specialized, like holding 3D printers, laser cutters or 3D scanners ready to use. They could be rented on-demand, installed, connected and used for some period and reused somewhere else after that. A kind of Rent-a-factory..!

Compact factories (in volume) need less heating and air conditioning and less artificial light. Industrial compressed air – if still in use – or other gases need less piping and volume in pipes in compact factory, less compressor units and power.
Air leaks in bigger facilities often require an additional compressor for compensation.
All good points for the sake of energy efficiency.

Most of the principles listed above are lessons learnt from lean experiences with existing factories. In such old-style factories, the improvements are often limited by physical, building construction constraints. Taking these lessons learnt into account is a way lean can help shaping the future.

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Would you trade Maria for a robot?

I am fascinated about the promises of robotics and other advanced technologies and prospectively analyzing what consequences – good or bad – the coming disruptions will bring.

Bandeau_CH12

During my vacation on Canarian island Fuerteventura and regular visitor of my hotel’s wellness center, I had plenty of time for thinking about things like “would I trade Maria (name modified) for a robot?”

Maria is the charming lady welcoming guests at the wellness center. She is a soft speaking kind and gentle person, doing her best to welcome and introduce guests from multiple countries to the relaxing experience of her realm, despite her limited foreign language skills.

I assume she makes her living in the hotel industry as many Canarians and is better off in this good smelling chill out atmosphere than her colleagues making rooms or serving in restaurants.

While relaxing in a hot spa, I was thinking about the future and the possible ever growing automation.

Trading Maria?

In such a perspective and “inspired” by the place, I wondered if I would trade Maria’s warm welcome for a technological solution, like a card lock as we have on our room door?

After all what Maria was doing was a bit of small talk, handing out a towel and a pair of slippers. She was probably doing more than that but the “value” I perceived was limited to this.

I could take a towel from a pile and a pair of slippers by myself and a card lock would be enough to screen out people having no right to access to the wellness center.

Everything else being equal, if I had to chose between Maria and a help-yourself solution, I would favor Maria, far better looking than a card lock and better help to improve my Spanish.

1% discount on the vacation price

What if trading Maria for the above mentioned alternative would give me 1% discount on the vacation price?

Well, the saving would be equivalent to four drinks at the hotel bar. I still value Maria’s kindness more than this. So I’d turn down the discount and let Maria make her living.

And 2% discount?

This would buy me and my wife a set of wonderful tapas and a glass of wine in a typical harbor tavern facing the Ocean. With such a perspective and having experienced how fine these tapas are, I’d say Maria, your job could be at risk..!

And 4% discount?

Maria would lose her job for a two persons full day excursion to Lanzarote’s volcanos and other sightseeing highlights, including the ferry across the Ocean channel and the buffet lunch plus three or four cups of Cava (the local sparkling wine coming closest to champagne) at the hotel’s bar.

Why trading Maria?

Still in my warm spa with dimmed light, chill out music and zen-inspired decoration, I went on with my analysis; what would turn me from being a nice guest praising Maria’s kind attentions into a selfish heartless guest trading her for a humanless process?

The tradeoff between what I get in actual conditions and what I could get more with a minimal additional effort. Maria’s charming ways would not stand against a tangible and meaningful personal advantage like getting more out of our vacation for the same price.

I believe a majority of guests would have similar analysis and similar conclusion.

My guess is that in future consumers will welcome all advantages of automation and robotics as the price for them will be minimal or remain hidden/unknown, just as most of us enjoyed buying cheaper garments made in low-cost countries even they came at the expenses of local jobs.
Someone else’s job.

Post scriptum

The term ‘robot’ in this post’s title is both a teaser and a generic term for a technological humanless substitute of human occupation.

Maria may give up her job to a humanoid robot, but I don’t think the return on investment will allow it in near future.

The real Maria gave up giving free Pilates discovery lessons, a part of the hotel’s animations, to an externally hired coach. From now on the hotel guests must pay for it. Not the trend clients expect…

What jobs in the factory of the future? Part5

Not as Many Jobs, But Jobs

Contrasting with my pessimistic analysis about jobs in the factory of future, Hal Sirkin, a senior partner with The Boston Consulting Group, would see the positive side of the half full glass in his article published on www.wired.com

The author discusses the possibility of Foxconn, the enormous Asian gadget manufacturer, to open factories to the U.S.

These US based factories would serve both tech company clients and the consumers who buy the gadgets they assemble, where they live. Cost differences being levelled by rising wages in China, the availability of advanced technology (automation, robotics) and an educated workforce to run it.

Sirkin warns “These Foxconn factories won’t be like the auto plants of the 1950s, that bygone era politicians so often invoke when promising the revival of U.S. manufacturing. Most of the jobs in these factories likely will require more than a high school diploma, and there won’t be as many of them to be had. (../..) Not as Many Jobs, But Jobs”.

 What jobs in the factory of the future? >Part1 >Part2 >Part3 >Part4

Bandeau_Lego2Chris HOHMANN

Robots won’t take your job, investors will

In a previous post I outlined cobots utopia where collaborative robots extend the worker’s abilities and compensate some human weaknesses. In this perspective cobots could keep aging workers on the job and help to improve industrial jobs’ image, often quoted Dirty, Dangerous and Difficult.

The cooperation between robots and workers could increase manpower productivity, hence reducing the cost gap with low-cost countries.

How likely is this to happen?

Let’s put it bluntly: why should an investor invest to compensate the human weaknesses with high-tech, knowing that in the system made of the association of robots and humans, the latter will still be the limiting factor?

Everything else being equal, why should an investor choose the precarious option of backing-up expensive workforce with cobots when a cheaper basic workforce is available somewhere in poorer, not-so-advanced countries?

Everything else being equal, why should an investor choose to invest in a complex combination of man-and-machine when full automation / robotics may soon be / already is (?) available?

Big Data combined with cyberphysical devices will come closer to human intelligence, allowing machines to learn from experience and predict failures, stoppage, breakdowns and act accordingly.

If investors are facing the choice between a cobot assisted human worker and a full automated process, I’m not sure many cobots will sell. What’s sure, the robot makers will sell, either robots or cobots!

Related: Cobots utopia