When we talk about automation, we often think about removing people from the manufacturing process. Yes, robotics has made the need for people less important in some aspects of manufacturing. In many ways however, highly-skilled labor such as engineers and mechanical technicians are in even more demand. This is because someone needs to monitor these machines and fix them when they’re broken. People are required to monitor tolerance levels and mechanical accuracy. These machines are often proprietary, explicitly designed to perform one task. That means they must be designed from scratch to meet strict tolerance levels.
These issues are where Six Sigma methods can help manufacturers and why Six Sigma certification is still in such high demand within the manufacturing industry. If machines aren’t properly calibrated, they will not achieve the efficiencies that their engineers designed them to perform. If robotics fail to perform at a higher level than people, why would a manufacturer need to use them?
The DMAIC method was specifically designed to help with these tasks. The history of Six Sigma has been told many times, but its role in automation is still being developed today. Lean Six Sigma methods are built into the automation process. It’s not necessarily because the robotics manufacturers designed them that way, but rather because the concept of automation is also the concept of basic waste reduction from the manufacturing process. Look at the manufacturing of automotive robots as a perfect example. Aceita states on their website that their arms “reduce waste previously caused by human error, which also means less variability in car assembly.” Is that not the definition of a Lean process?
Why would employees still need a Six Sigma certification if waste has already been removed from the process?
Asking this question assumes that inefficiency has been completely removed from the manufacturing process. A portion of the assembly line may flow perfectly, but it’s of little consequence if there are bottlenecks further down the manufacturing line. Deviation from the mean must be closely monitored, and it takes someone with a knowledge of Six Sigma methods and strong statistical knowledge to understand and monitor these processes.
Should these skills be learned through education or through apprenticeships?
Waste reduction can not be fully realized unless your team is using both approaches. Let’s look at apprenticeship first, since learning-by-doing is a proven way to learn a new skill. Having engineers on the assembly line allows them to monitor the manufacturing process first-hand. This approach, often referred to as a Gemba Walk, puts the engineers (and company leadership) directly in front of the machines as they build a product on the assembly floor. An apprentice can learn first-hand from an experienced engineer and can mirror the skills they learn in real-time.
Education on continuous improvement is just as critical as on-the-job training since you need to understand WHY something works before you can understand the HOW. If the goal is to apply Six Sigma methods to a process, then training on the DMAIC process should be completed before an apprenticeship is offered. Education is even more important if the manufacturing process is still in development. An engineer who understands Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) can develop a manufacturing line with continual process controls at the very heart of the process.