What is Autonomation?

Autonomation is automation with a human touch; but what does that really mean and where has it come from?

Sakichi Toyoda invented a loom in 1896 that not  only operated automatically but also stopped when any of the threads broke, this simple idea revolutionized the industry as instead of there being a requirement for an operator having to sit beside each and every machine waiting and searching for a problem, one operator could now watch several machines and just take action when a problem occurred thus increasing productivity and quality.

It is said that the later sale of this technology and the patent to a UK textile company provided the cash that the Toyoda family required to start their new business Toyota Cars.

Autonomation therefore is not full scale automation, it automates the tasks that operators would find boring, repetitive or unsafe but retains human beings to look after the process, often loading the machines and monitoring for abnormalities highlighted by the machines.




Autonomation Improves Productivity


Autonomation is the strategy that Toyota uses for its machines, rather than investing in huge monolith machines that can do everything but take forever to set up and require to run huge batches they invest in small machines that do specific tasks that humans would find difficult or repetitive and use autonomation principles to ensure that the operator only has to interrupt the cycle if something goes wrong. This increase productivity and reduces costs considerably as now an operator can monitor several machines on an exception basis and only has to take action if something goes wrong.

In addition to autonomation they also developed the idea of mistake proofing known as PokaYoke which seeks to either prevent the possibility of creating a defect or in highlighting if one has been created.


Autonomation and Jidoka


Autonomation is part of Jidoka, jidoka being a simple set of rules that were inspired by Toyoda’s first loom;

  1. Discover an abnormality
  2. STOP
  3. Fix the immediate problem
  4. Investigate and correct root cause


Jidoka covers both the whole process as well as individual machines and requires that operators who spot an abnormality stop the process in just the same way that autonomation has the machine stop when something is incorrect.

The important thing however is not to just stop, autonomation without the follow through of the remaining Jidoka principles just results in machines that keep stopping; we have to fix the problem and remove the root cause.

This requires operators to be trained in simple problem solving techniques and to be empowered to solve problems along with their team leaders and supervisors thus ensuring that we continually improve our processes to remove all quality problems improving product quality and our productivity.


Autonomation Examples



The picture to the left is a simple coil feeder that provides a continuous supply of steel sheet to an automated press stamping out components, without any form of autonomation sensor an operator would have to watch this to ensure that the tension was correct and that the steel has not run out. Simple sensors will alert the operator if any problems occur and stop the press to prevent defects being produced or even damage to the press. This frees the operator to conduct other work and improves productivity and improves quality.


The stamping press feeds components via a small slide to load the next machine in the process, if that next machine stops for some reason a senor on the slide will register the build up of additional components on the slide and stop the stamping press to prevent overproduction of parts which would overflow the slide and potentially cause jams and expensive damage.

Some devices are also known as Poka Yoke devices or mistake proofing; these are simple ideas that prevent the creation of defects and are very much part of autonomation. Examples are things like sensors that register when all holding clamps on a fixture are fully closed so that you know all components are loaded correctly. Shaped fixtures that will only accept the correct orientation of components, pins in fixtures that mate with holes in components preventing you from fitting the wrong components are all simple examples of Poka Yoke.

Other examples cover simple devices that measure the number of fasteners that are tightened and the torques that are tightened, if the correct torque is not reached or not enough fasteners are tightened you cannot proceed onto the next process highlighting the defect.

The use of autonomation can automate mundane tasks while keeping oversight, reducing errors and the cost of shipping returns.

Autonomation Video


Additional Autonomation Resources

If you want to learn a little more about Taiichi Ohno and Autonomation you can check out this short PDF or another article about the idea of autonomation.


Autonomation refererence books

Working with Machines: The Nuts and Bolts of Lean Operations with Jidoka
JIT Implementation Manual — The Complete Guide to Just-In-Time Manufacturing: Volume 5 — Standardized Operations — Jidoka and Maintenance/Safety
JIT Implementation Manual — The Complete Guide to Just-In-Time Manufacturing: Volume 5 — Standardized Operations — Jidoka and Maintenance/Safety – Kindle Version
Autonomation is now often added as common sense improvements to many machines, however it should be actively pursued when implementing total productive maintenance (TPM) or Lean Manufacturing implementations.

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