Lean Selling Anti-Lean?

[tweetmeme source=”leanisgood” service=”ow.ly” only_single=false]In the last few months I’ve been coming across articles from Toyota Material Handling touting their AGV or automated guided vehicles.  This particular article in ThomasNet News describes showing off the total system.

A floor demonstration showcased the maneuvering and towing capabilities of Toyota’s AGV products and AutoGuide’s AGVs, along with the debut of ICI’s PC-based AGV traffic control software Automated Vehicle Intersection Navigational Utility (AVINU).

A robot using “RecogniSense” vision guidance from Comau also demonstrated how robots use vision-guided technology to pick and set from AGVs without precision locating of the AGV.

I haven’t seen this system in action, but it sure sounds complicated with the AGV, AGV control software AVINU, and “RecogniSense” vision guidance.  It also sounds very expensive from an initial cost investment and  from a continuing maintenance perspective.

I can’t help but wonder if this is a case of a lean company selling “anti-lean” products to the traditional manufacturing leaders in this country that still see their employees as only a strong back and no minds.  The same leaders that can easily see their labor costs but don’t understand all the hidden costs of rigid systems that require high-tech, high cost maintenance technicians to maintain.

Maybe I’m off base with my limited exposure to this system.  If there are those of you that have these systems maybe you can set me straight.  Can you easily update the system as you continuously improve your operation?  Does it have the ability to make varying part replenishment milk runs where it has to pick up kanban cards and supply that part on the next run?  Will it recognize when part of the system is not operating properly and pull the andon cord?  And then determine a solution to the problem?

This AGV  just seems to contradict  much of what Toyota has taught us about making technology work for people, not people slaved to the technology.  It also seems to contradict their methodology of simpler more flexible machines over complicated “monuments.”  Is the Lean giant actually manufacturing and marketing anti lean technology that is, what appears to me, to be against the majority of the principles that have made them so successful.  Is that even wrong?  They are still just supplying what their customers are asking to meet their anti-lean business philosophy.

Maybe Toyota is just morphing TPS into GM’s production system and Toyota Material Handling is just supporting that transformation?  Maybe that is why the mother company is experiencing GM and Ford like recalls all of a sudden?


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9 Responses

  1. I’ve seen the robots used at several older plants that were initially set up as pure, full factory assembly line plants. The plants are long and narrow and it’s hard to set up parts replenishment for their layout. The robots make milk runs through the plant on a set schedule through the day. When an operator empties a Kan-ban container he places it on the robot. The robot returns to the stock-picker and the bin is refilled. The work cell picks up the filled bin on the next run. Much better than using a cart with an operator for this kind of task.

    • David, Thanks for the info. Great point that I missed in my post would be the respect for humanity. If systems like you describe above are implemented, then the tug driver can be used for more “engaging” tasks than driving the tow motor around the same track.

      I just worry that some companies “engaging” task would be filling out unemployment papers.


      • In my experience most of these are replacing the time the cell leader previously spent walking to the parts bin to get the fasteners they ran out of – not a fork truck operator. While there are always companies that are looking to reduce headcount I think most manufacturer’s are looking for ways to avoid hiring rather than ways to lay someone off.

  2. Unless they are von neumann machines they probably won’t be able to improve themselves. I guess if I had to automate the people out something, this might be it. Hopefully the people at each end of the robot’s path can notice abnormalities and react / improve.
    I would be afraid that this is a headcount reduction.
    I used to have a customer in Sweden and they have rules (laws) against laying people off. they installed one of these systems and didn’t have any savings because they couldn’t lay anybody off.
    I guess if you can put people in other jobs this might not be that bad. It certainly wouldn’t be at the top of my capital improvement list.

  3. Bryan, consider this your invitation to come to ICI in Georgetown Ky to see the system first hand. Toyota Material Handling, ICI and Autoguides main goal is to provide a flexible, low cost and maintenance friendly system. The Toyota mouse AGV is a low cost, easily programmed with tow capacities up to 2000kg. They are available in forward only or bi-directional and have a retractable tow pin which allows the ability to drop dollies and pick up others, thus reducing the cost of dedicated AGV’s.
    Autoguide takes standard Toyota tuggers and converts them to AGV’s using off the shelf controls doing away with the “black box” controls, this does away with the “high tech, high maintenance techs” you spoke about. The Autoguide AGV also still functions as a manual tugger when needed, as soon as someone steps onto the platform the automatic controls drop out and the manual controls are available. Since this is modular bolt on kit with no modifications to the tugger it allows those who lease the tuggers to simply remove the kit at the end of the lease and reuse the kit on the new tugger.
    Since ICI’s been installing AGV systems for several years we decided to create AVINU as lower cost solution for traffic control verses PLC control. With AVINU we control all traffic, report all faults, report cycle times for all routes and yes we “pull the Andon” and report the location of the vehicle. AVINU is PC based and communicates via a modem, it is modular and will communicate with most AGV’s, you can even run all your systems off of one seat of software, you simply add a license for each additional AGV. Since part of lean is flexibility through kaizan, this system fits in perfectly with lean systems, new routes, route changes and priorities at intersections are made easily through “drop & drag” screens, no more PLC changes which requires maintenance or engineering personnel.
    ICI chose Comau’s vision for it’s low cost, easy set up and programming. This solution allows us to eliminate the need for high cost tooling anytime we need a pick and place application.
    So come and see us and you will see first hand how this low cost, flexible system fits right in to lean manufacturing.

    PS since this is sent from my phone please excuse any misspelled words and grammatical errors. Thanks

    Tim Taylor
    Industrial Concepts, Inc.

  4. Tim, Thanks for the response. Next time I’m in Kentucky I would love to see your system. I especially look forward to discussing how people are using the system in their plants.


  5. Bryan,
    I worked at a Toyota manufacturing plant for more than 11 years and I am a certified TPS trainer. The use of AGV’s fits very well into TPS since it directly addresses the muda of conveyance (1 on the 7 muda’s). Conyeyance of materials on a production floor is neccesary but is also waste because it doesn’t add value to the finished product. Every effort should be made to minimize the costs associated with this material movement. Toyota’s AGV’s are simple to set-up and maintain and when implemented using TPS priciples are extremely effective at reducing those material handling costs. I now work for ICI and like our president Tim Taylor, I welcome you to come and see how the new Toyota AGV product line indeed follow in the tradition of the Toyota Way.

    • I agree with the last comment completely. I am looking at possibly installing a system in my facility. I can reduce batch sizes by more than 50% without adding headcount by bringing a box of material from each upstream process to the downstream assembly using a system such as this.

      • Sounds like you are going down the right path. As I have no experience with this system please let us know what you end up doing and how it turns out.


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