What exactly is lights-out manufacturing?
It’s just what it says on the tin. A fully automated factory needs little or no human intervention, so it can manufacture with the lights out. And this isn’t some futuristic fantasy.
Fanuc in Japan has been operating with the lights out since 2001. Their robots make robots.
Yet factories that can function without human supervision are still rare. Douglas Peterson, general manager for the Americas at collaborative robots maker Universal Robots, told Automation World, “You have to specifically design a factory floor for lights-out operation, which requires a significant capital expenditure.”
That’s not stopping the plastics industry from trying. Lights-out manufacturing is quietly transforming plastic injection moulding in the U.S. Those businesses have gained a global advantage in cost and turn-around time, fewer defects and increased quality.
With lights-out plastic injection moulding, manufacturers can significantly boost their productivity, meeting large orders quickly without the costs associated with extra manned shifts. The cost savings can then be passed onto customers, making the process even more attractive. Theoretically, the only time humans are needed is to set up the plastic injection moulding machines for a production run.
Humans still needed
Make no mistake; highly skilled humans are still part of the process. This simply means there are no low-skilled jobs in lights-out factories. In fact, the lack of highly skilled humans is one motivation for businesses turning to lights-out manufacturing. State-of-the-art technology will always require humans to oversee it.
However, lights-out manufacturing is not the be-all, end-all solution for everything. Custom machines need to automate injection moulding processes for different plastic parts. This means automated moulding is only cost efficient for a large production volume over a long period of time.
There is another issue. Lights-out manufacturing still needs an expert human eye to check finished parts for small defects and make adjustments to the machines as necessary. Industry 4.0 has driven manufacturers to look for a new kind of worker – one who’s interested in improving or managing technology versus doing manual labour.
Lights-out manufacturing is only going to grow, driven by economics and continuously improved technologies.