The manufacturing industry looks much different than it did 20 or 30 years ago. Automation and robotics fit easily into their niche, streamlining the manufacturing process and providing better overall quality – but they don’t work independently. There are almost always human workers in the facility to monitor operations, complete tasks, and ensure everything goes smoothly.
What if they could turn out the lights and head home for the night? What is lights-out manufacturing, and why is it such a game changer for production?
What Is Lights-Out Manufacturing?
What is lights-out manufacturing, for those who haven’t heard the term before? Contrary to what its name suggests, it doesn’t involve just turning out the lights.
Lights-out manufacturing, also known as dark manufacturing, is a relatively new methodology that uses so much automation that a facility can operate without human intervention. In theory, since robotic arms and assembly equipment don’t need ambient light to see as humans do, these facilities could function in total darkness without any adverse effects on quality, efficiency, or productivity.
Companies have been seeking the perfect tools for a lights-out manufacturing setup for decades, with a history of unsuccessful attempts dating back to 2001. The technology simply didn’t exist at the time, and that which did exist wasn’t ready for full automation.
The one exception is FANUC, a Japanese manufacturing company that’s been running lights-out for 25 days at a time since 2001. Human workers are only on-site for emergencies or routine maintenance. Other manufacturing facilities opt for lights-out operations during the third shift because human workers often struggle to adapt to these strange overnight hours.
Pros of Lights-Out Manufacturing
Those in the industry often joke that the factory of the future will only have two living employees: a guard dog and the worker tasked to feed it. This doesn’t sound like a negative thing, especially if it leaves former factory workers better equipped to pursue their dreams or other careers that put their skills to the test.
What are the benefits of lights-out manufacturing?
Fewer Workplace Accidents
It’s easier to keep workers safe and prevent injuries or accidents on the job if there isn’t anyone there to get hurt. Safety protocols are still essential for maintenance crews or human workers in the facility, but injuries are kept at a minimum for normal operations.
Less Waste and Better Quality
One of the most significant benefits of automated manufacturing is that, unless something goes very wrong with the equipment, it will be able to create the same quality and consistency every time. That means better overall products shipped to the consumers and fewer recalls or discarded production runs, which creates less general waste.
Advancing Maintenance Strategies
Running a lights-off factory doesn’t mean the equipment takes care of itself. Predictive and preventive maintenance schedules are necessary to ensure everything runs smoothly and nothing goes wrong during a lights-out run. It’s more complicated than your basic everyday maintenance schedule, helping to feed innovation and working to advance maintenance strategies.
Cons of Lights-Out Manufacturing
It sounds like the perfect solution, but lights-out manufacturing doesn’t solve all the problems in the manufacturing industry. What are some of the most common challenges that lights-out factories face?
Expensive High-Tech Installation
Getting the automated systems necessary for a lights-out factory isn’t easy or cheap. The technology is relatively new, so cutting costs by opting for used equipment isn’t always an option. These systems need to work together seamlessly, with little to no human intervention.
The initial installation can be expensive and additional training is necessary to ensure everyone on staff knows how to set up, work with, and maintain the automated systems. It may be possible to sell the used equipment you’re replacing to recover some of the expenses of adopting automation.
Better for Simple Manufacturing Tasks
Lights-out manufacturing setups are better for simple and easily repeatable tasks. Complex manufacturing tasks or plans are more difficult to program into an automated system. The more steps something takes to assemble, the more chances there are for errors to occur.
It’s not impossible to set up a lights-out factory for complex manufacturing tasks, but the technology is better suited to simple tasks.
Slow Emergency Response
If something goes wrong or catches fire in a traditional factory, there are team members around to respond instantly.
Things can get messy quickly if something goes wrong in a lights-out factory. A team member could quickly extinguish a small fire with a handheld fire extinguisher, preventing it from spreading and causing more damage or generating enough smoke to trigger the building-wide fire suppression system. Even if the fire suppression system is designed to not damage the equipment, cleaning it up can still be a massive mess.
Changing the Manufacturing Game
Much of modern manufacturing relies on repetition – completing the same manual, tedious tasks over and over again, ad infinitum. Automation helps reduce the monotony of manufacturing by taking over some of these tasks and freeing workers to shift their focus to other, more critical tasks. Removing human workers from the equation in a lights-out factory helps increase the overall efficiency and productivity of these assembly lines.
Now, it’s important to note that moving people from a lights-out manufacturing facility doesn’t mean removing them from the equation entirely. People are what make these systems work. They’re vitally important for the future of the industry. Even the most advanced lights-out factory needs people to load the programs, maintain the equipment, provide the raw materials, and fix things as they break.
Building an Automated Future
Humans are problem solvers and creative spirits and will continue to innovate and change the manufacturing industry for the better. Lights-out manufacturing is just one step in the right direction. These innovators are building an automated future that will continue to shape the manufacturing industry and economy for decades.
The technology isn’t perfect and there are still plenty of bugs to work out before companies consider running a 24/7 lights-out factory, but that’s where humans excel.
The human race likes to look at a challenge – whether it’s a mountain to climb or a technological problem to solve – and ask, “How can I fix this and how can I do it better?” Humanity is a species of innovators, and those innovations are focused on building a better – and more automated – future.
Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, a magazine exploring how innovations change our world. She has over five years of experience writing articles in the industrial and tech sectors.