How to Design a Lean Workcell to Support Just-in-Time Manufacturing

posted on: Saturday January 14, 2017

family-run-business-645614_1280We’ve posted some recent articles on some of the struggles that American manufacturers have had adopting lean strategies in their plants. There are many various “tools” you can use to achieve lean, some easier to implement than others. Cellular workcells, however, are successfully bringing about huge improvements in the American Just-in-Time (JIT) environment.

Cellular manufacturing uses “group technology” to move the process along as quickly as possible. Workcells are set up in an assembly line or U-shaped fashion, in which similar products are grouped together in separate cells, speeding assembly time and creating less waste. The product moves from one cell to the next with minimal travel, easy communication, and high visibility. They simplify material flow and management of the process.

These simple cells work because of the interactions between the people and equipment within them. A properly designed and manned cell will be self-regulating and self-improving. Each focuses on eliminating the eight wastes of lean.

A typical workcell has 3-12 people and 5-15 workstations arranged compactly. Your cell design will be based off of four factors:

  1. Products and/or processes to include in a cell. Each cell will have different machines stationed within them, so you want to find compatible groups of products that each set of machines can process without undo changeovers. Find the family of work that shares similar resources and tasks.
  1. Define the process. In this step, you’ll combine your understanding of every process event with the time it will take for setup, employee activities, and machine cycles. The objective here is to identify the best sequence of steps to determine the number of people and machines to assign to a station.
  1. Identify the infrastructure. The infrastructure pertains to everything that supports the process but doesn’t touch the product. Here’s where you outline your material handling, containers, acceptable WIP, scheduling, balancing the workload, quality assurance, and motivation. Understand that most workcells fail without this step. It’s important to treat workcells as a separate kind of process, but one that needs all the same management and functionality of a traditional workflow setup.
  1. Physical layout. Hopefully, with the first three factors accounted for, this is pretty straightforward. Things to consider are: integrating it with the overall layout, identifying the best physical arrangement for a lean process, and defining external constraints as well as how to overcome them. The physical layout should be as small and compact as possible. Often times that means that component parts are replenished every hour or two. The replenishing of parts allows the cell to primarily do “work” and not inventory parts that will be used at a later time.

As you can guess, successful cells are not just set up well, but also utilize proper tools and equipment to support the flow of work. Other tools you’re using for lean can easily fit into a cellular model. For example, battery-powered tugs are extremely handy in a cellular layout, both within the cells and feeding parts to the cell. They assist you in streamlining the flow of work at any and every stop from point A to B. Used wisely, tugs help you keep components moving until they become a fully assembled product that is now saleable.

Talk to Load Mover Inc. about the ways that power tugs reduce your WIP and support cellular workflow in JIT manufacturing. We can help you understand how to make this lean model successful. Call 952-767-1720 or email