What Are the Differences between Automation and Autonomation?

Written by Jason Haines

Many companies have invested in machines and computer programs that have assisted to automate their processes to grow their businesses. These investments have led them to produce more than ever before and find ways to fulfill the customer demands at a higher pace than they ever imagined. Whether a new machine to help the production floor or a more efficient computer program to help track shipments and inventory, these products can make jobs more efficient and productive. But do they really?

Automation is the technology by which a process or procedure is performed with minimal human assistance. This technology was developed in order to produce more parts at a faster pace, however, automation sometimes parts are produced that cannot be used due to defects and mistakes that the machine makes. Defects at a company can cost between 30-200% of the cost of the part that was made. I argue defects are at 200% because you are paying for that part or product twice to be made. Automation can make jobs more difficult than they need to be due to rework, WIP, and scrap that these machines cause because no one watches over the machines to fix problems as they arise.

Another area that automation hurts production is the changeovers. Changeovers can be long and cumbersome and cause downtime that the organization cannot afford. This is when accountants and planners come up with what we all know as the economic order quantity; they tell us what we need to produce in order to be safe and still be able to do changeovers. This is where Dr. Shigeo Shingo, a Japanese engineer after WWII, discovered a way to make the machinery more flexible and changeovers easier by developing the Single Minute Exchange of Dies (SMED). When SMED was recognized, it made many things possible within organizations through the power of Lean Thinking.

SMED established features like smaller cell-like designs, which can be provided by Lean product manufacturer C Tek. For example, C Tek can design customized carts with tools and hold parts to help with changeovers. Additionally, they can provide systems and build cells that will help the flow of products and provide a system that is more automated for your process. C Tek has Sub-Assembly workstations, Flow-Swap stations, and other stations that will help employees see problems as they arise. With customized solutions and free design service, C Tek will collaborate with your organization to fit your Lean needs.

When the Japanese were developing their Lean Thinking programs, they created what is now called autonomation. Autonomation was designed to have a person at the machines addressing problems when they arise, rather than after the problem has happened. Autonomation sets the machines to stop when an error happens, whether by an employee pulling a cord (andon pulls) or the machine is automatically programmed to stop when a problem happens. This process helps solve problems when they arise, solve them quickly, and allow a company to go in-depth if issues are reoccurring.

Autonomation gave the machine world a human touch that would help make a better and stronger quality product. It also gave employees valuable input into their jobs by becoming problem solvers make decisions on to stop the line. Toyota believes that an unsuccessful day is a day with no andon pulls. In essence, their belief is that “no problems is a problem.” They want people to catch and see problems in order to find solutions and make the proper changes to the process.

With this problem-solving culture, Toyota has fewer problems with their products than many other organizations. People learn not to take shortcuts and perform their job correctly; setting standards and using times that provide frontline workers with the knowledge of where they are and what they need to do.

Along with the standards and the andon cords, Lean also provides a line of leaders that are there to help solve problems. These frontline leaders are being trained and training others on how to find the root cause to solve a problem. Teaching people to not firefight and go more in-depth into a problem to be more critical in their thinking. The goal is to take a deeper dive where the problems are and what is causing them will keep the issues from reoccurring.

When learning to solve problems by thinking beyond first-level people gain a much more thorough understanding. With a more systematic understanding, frontline workers will know how to solve problems on their own and with analytical thinking. This thinking helps everyone not jump to conclusions and firefight every issue that happens within their department. When people aren’t constantly firefighting and putting band-aids on problems, there is much less stress in the workplace. This way, people don’t have to deal with the temporary fixes that never seem to go away with time.

Everyone knows firefighting in the workplace is stressful, not only when it is being done but also over the long term. If you find yourself and your organization in this position, why not implement processes that make people more open to solving problems? Implement SMED, Autonomation, and other tools from Lean that will help people have a standard guideline to help solve problems. Provide these tools to help everyone in the organization to make sure things stay on the right track. You cannot have order if you do not have rules to help.

If you’re like me, you think problem-solving is fun. It helps people think about how to do things and helps find new ways to do things. Implementing Lean can be fun and provide your company with many new avenues to go down. It is exciting watching your peers or leaders learn on the job and being able to provide input into what they do. And with Lean Thinking, we all get this. The fun of coming to work to think rather than coming to work to do the same mundane tasks that do not use our minds.

Lastly, I leave you with this question. Would you rather be a company that installs machines or computer programs that are supposed to automate your processes and make them more productive? Or would you like to have an organization that has machines and programs along with a human touch? Where the operators in real-time can stop the machines when they see a problem and fix those problems immediately. Which would you rather have in order to provide the best quality product to your consumers?