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LEAN MANUFACTURING

How to use line balancing in lean manufacturing and improve with digital tools?

In this article we describe line balancing, also known as production leveling, and propose ways how to improve line balancing with digital tools.

In section 1, we start our article with explaining what line balancing is. In section 2, we detail line balancing with an example from an assembly line. Please note, that the underlying principles can also be applied to other production settings. Section 3 proposes a 4-step approach to implement line balancing and section 4 and section 5 give two examples of how to improve line balancing with digital tools.

1. What is line balancing?

Line balancing also referred to as load balancing, production leveling, or originally Heijunka (Japanese) describes a technique to align production output with customer demand through leveling of cycle times. Using the line balancing method several sources of waste (jap. Muda) are reduced.

8 wastes of lean manufacturing


2. How to balance an assembly flow line?

Manufacturing operations that use (assembly) flow lines forward products step after step from one station to another. Each station needs a certain amount of time to conduct the necessary actions before the product can be passed to the next station. If stations forward products directly after they are finished with a process, stocks and waiting time is generated between stations, if processing time differs (see figure 1).

Figure 2 displays the processing time for the stations within an assembly line. Due to the difference between processing times efficient use of the line’s capacity is hindered. To avoid a pileup of stock between stations a cycle or takt time is introduced. The cycle time reflects the longest time needed to finish processes at all stations. After one cycle all stations begin assembling the next product. 

This procedure ist leading to idle time at station 1, but avoids stock generation in-between stations as figure 3 shows. Through the division of the available time (7 hours = 420 minutes = 25.200 seconds) in a shift by cycle time (4 seconds) the output per shift of such an unbalanced line is calculated. To align the as-is output with the target output the cycle time needs to be adjusted in most cases. By dividing target output by available shift time, the target cycle time is calculated. The use of line balancing shifts parts of work between stations to lower the longest processing time and therefore to lower cycle time. Figure 4 depicts the processing and cycle time after applying the line balancing method to an assembly line. 

Figure 5 depicts the flow of goods in such an assembly line. Due to line balancing, now every 3 seconds a product leaves the line. 

Before applying the line balancing method a product left the line every 4 seconds. Therefore an efficiency gain of 25% was realized using line balancing. If the new as-is cycle time is still too high to reach the demanded output, additional stations need to be ramped up to shorten cycle times or building a whole new line. In a balanced assembly line, all stations work with the same processing and cycle time and therefore do not produce stocks or waiting time between stations. 


This easy example levels one product on one line. In reality, most manufacturers assemble multiple products on the same assembly line with fluctuating cycle and processing times. Multi-product assembly lines are more difficult to balance and more error-prone to devitations from cycle time. Due to frequent changeovers, issues occur more often making it tough to follow the targeted cycle time.

3. How to implement line balancing?

1. Assess takt time

The goal of line balancing is to align production with takt time. So the first step you need to do to implement line balancing ist to calculate takt time: 

TAKT TIME = AVAILABLE WORKING TIME / RATE OF CUSTOMER DEMAND 

With a digital platform such as WORKERBASE, calculating and tracking takt time is an easy exercise, since the platform provides templates for calculating the takt time and takt time dashboards.

2. Collect process data

To efficiently implement line balancing, you need to find out how long operators and machines spend on each part of a process. Traditional methods using stopwatch and paper lists are error-prone and not efficient, modern tools allow a much better and more precise data collection experience. Therefore, we recommend using digital tools to assess process times. With digital workflows, you can collect all data points about the time required to complete each task along a production line. See the example application below to find out how to use digital workflows to collect process data.

3. Identify process bottlenecks and excess capacity

With a comprehensive data set, you can easily identify process bottlenecks and excess capacity.

  • Process bottlenecks: these are the steps that exceed takt time. Congratulations! You have found the root causes for process inefficiencies, resulting in late deliveries and unhappy customers. 
  • Excess capacity: process steps that take less than takt time. These are optimal candidates for line balancing.

4. Optimize process sequences and reassign resources

By identifying process bottlenecks excess capacity, you have done the groundwork for process optimization. Now it’s the time to rearrange process sequences to balance the available resources and to eliminate bottlenecks. This usually involves the following steps:

  • Shift excess capacity to areas with bottlenecks: reassign workers and equipment from parts of the line that have excess capacity to parts where you have identified bottlenecks. With that you will eliminate waiting waste and improve production flow.
  • Synchronize manual activities: Share workload among operators by distributing activities in the most efficient way. For example, at a station that needs quality checks, you can run a shared digital checklist that can be filled out by two operators at the same time. For more information on digital checklists, please see the WORKERBASE Digital checklist app.
  • Automatically assign tasks based on availability: in environments where multiple employees perform standardized tasks, you can use digital tools to automatically assign those tasks. This allows for optimal task sequencing and resource allocation and typically results in improved throughput at the particular workstation. Please review our product section to find more information about real-time workflow management.
  • Set up real-time support systems: by using a Digital Andon solution, you allow your operators to file support requests in case of process blockages or tasks that do not comply to a standard procedure. Please see the example below to learn more about Digital Andon.

4. Example application: Improve line balancing by collecting process data

With digital workflow apps such as the WORKERBASE data collection app, process data can be collected in a very efficient way. The data collection app is fully configurable and provides several functions for different data types such as text input, lists, barcodes etc. Digital checklists offer many advantages over paper based versions. Apart from having direct data in digital format and avoiding the need for scanning/digitizing results, the WORKERBASE system also guarantees adherence to the process behind the checklist. 

Example: improve line balancing by collecting process data

All data is directly stored in the system and can be used to trigger follow-up processes. In addition, the system can be configured in a way that allows two workers to work simultaneously. The WORKERBASE system manages the checklist execution through a task management approach. Once checklists are configured, they can be executed based on a wide range of conditions, for example regular intervals or ad-hoc. The system manages the allocation of a task to users based on a range of configurable criteria such as:

  • Availability
  • Skill
  • Location
  • Experience
  • Priority

Process data can be collected explicitly by providing data input forms to employees or in a more lightweight and implicit way. Here, the system automatically tracks and stores process data such as starting times or task durations, of course compliant with data privacy and GDPR regulations. Implicit process data usually is stored anonymously and without links to personal data. However, implicit and anonymized process data still provides important insights for line balancing. 


5. Example application: Improve line balancing with Digital Andon

Digital tools as the WORKERBASE Andon system enables line operators to stay within cycle time and improves the availability of the whole line. Through real-time connections between the line operator and cross functions such as maintenance, logistics, and quality transparency is increased and downtime reduced. Once an issue occurs, that cannot be handled by the operator alone, the operator triggers a workflow that informs the next available and skilled cross-function. Due to faster reaction times, the issue can often be handled in-line without ejecting the product from the assembly line nor slowing or shutting down the line. Therefore allowing smaller buffers in cycle times, reduced costs of rework, and more stable operations.

digital tools to support line balancing

Digital Andon to support line balancing

In our example, we use the WORKERBASE Connected Worker Software to cretae a Digital Andon Workflow. With the WORKERBASE Low-Code App Builder funtion, the setup of an Andon workstation can be configured with a web browser. The operators at the line use tablet PCs mounted to the work stations and can press different buttons to call for help. The WORKERBASE system is fully configurable, thus there a no limits regarding amount and type of support call buttons. In fact, several buttons can be combined and allow to report details of issues, e.g. a button "Material needed" can be followed by the amount of needed resources. By configuring business rules in the WORKERBASE system, the notification flow can be customized. In the example, all material problems are going to be sent to a user group "Material management" while issues related to "Machine parts" will be sent to a "Technician" user group. Once a operator at the line presses the button, all employees assigned to the certain user group would receive a real-time notification on their smart device. This real-time communication flow drastically improves reaction times and allows to resolve issues fast. In turn, the fast problem resolution allows to reduce cycle times to a minimum.

Interested?

Get in touch to find out more and explore our capabilities with a 15-minute demo. Learn how the WORKERBASE Connected worker platform can help you connect your people, machines, devices, and the systems used across your processes and factories. Schedule a demo now to learn how WORKERBASE can help you. For more examples on how to improve lean manufacturing with digital tools, please read our guide to lean digital or get our Digital Andon solution guideline.

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