Is Lights-Out Manufacturing Realistic?

The rise of robotics and machine learning has long been a staple of pop culture. Whether its HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, R2-D2 from Star Wars, or the android Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, the idea of computer-driven manufacturing is a fantasy for many.

But is it fantasy? In recent years, we’ve heard increasingly about the lights-out manufacturing trend — factories and warehouses that can operate completely in the dark using only machines. No humans needed.

While the idea of lights-out manufacturing may be appealing for many reasons, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic it has a new meaning: increased occupational health and safety.

From the start of the pandemic, we have heard about supply chain disruptions due to factories being closed for quarantine. There have also been several reports of outbreaks in manufacturing plants.

Because of this, robotics and lights-out manufacturing are not just appealing; they could be the difference between continuing to operate at full capacity and not.

The question is, is lights-out manufacturing truly realistic? As Assembly put it in a recent article, is it fact or fiction?

Can we actually achieve robotics-led manufacturing or is this just another sci-fi trope?

Let’s explore.

What Is Lights-Out Manufacturing?

To start, we need to define what, exactly, lights-out manufacturing even is.

In theory, according to Assembly, the dream of this type of factory is to be able to push a button (or hit a key on your computer or phone) and have the machines do the work for you.

“There’s an old joke that the factory of the future will be so automated that it will have just two employees: a guard dog and a person to feed it,” Assembly writes.

“Another variation on the theme is that someday there will only be a human and a dog sitting in a control room, with the dog there to make sure that the human doesn’t touch anything.”

While this type of factory may be the fantasy, it’s not necessarily the reality. In warehouses that have achieved full automation of the like, there is still a need for highly skilled employees to oversee the technology, check for quality control, and make adjustments to machinery as necessary.

However, as we move down the automation spectrum, lights-out manufacturing can also be a synonym for warehouses that rely less on human staff — otherwise known as smart manufacturing. For example, in the post-COVID-19 era, this may look more like being able to maintain manufacturing operations with staff out sick or having wider space to operate within physical distancing guidelines.

Examples of Machine-Led Manufacturing in Action

Perhaps the most well-known example of lights-out manufacturing is FANUC, a Japanese robotics company, which has been operating this way since 2001. It can reportedly operate unsupervised for up to 30 days at a time.

Philips is another manufacturer that operates with mostly machines. Based in the Netherlands, they rely on automation and robotics to manufacture electric razors. There are nine staff who oversee quality assurance.

In a different sense, Ocado has also streamlined its operations using robotics. While it is not necessarily a manufacturer, but they operate in warehouses and deliveries, relying on robotics arms to pick produce, pack and move boxes, and even self-driving vehicles.

There are more examples of smart manufacturing in action. For example, the Siemens plant in Germany enables online monitoring of globally distributed machine tools.

Hirotec is another example of smart manufacturing. According to Internet of Business, they wanted to reduce downtime, which could cost up to $361 per second. So, they employed a mix of IoT, cloud-based technologies, and small servers on factory floors. The result was a 100% reduction in manual inspection time.

Limitations of Lights-Out Manufacturing

If operating lights out is so great, then why isn’t everyone doing it?

The first reason may be cost. This type of operation often requires transforming the entire factory floor, which is a large investment. It also works best for manufacturers that produce a large volume of products — and mainly one type of product at that.

The second reason may be flexibility. One of the criticisms of robotics-led manufacturing is that it doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to flexibility and process improvement the way that human staff do. Machines must be used strategically, but it’s much harder to make changes on the fly. There are many cases where humans are still faster than robots — and process automation may be all that you need for smoother operations.

The third reason may be skill. The skills gap in manufacturing is already a difficult bridge to cross. While in theory lights-out manufacturing would require no people, the fact is that in most cases human employees are still needed who understand the technology, processes, and robotics. While this may mean fewer employees, it also means hiring staff with the skill to understand and work with this technology.

How to Move Towards the Factory of the Future

While lights-out manufacturing may be possible, it’s still rare and may not be completely achievable yet.

However, that doesn’t mean all its principles need to be thrown away. We can take many lessons from this approach and apply them to manufacturing today — particularly in the wake of COVID-19.

For instance:

  • Certain ERP systems can flag issues with machines and equipment using IoT sensors.
  • Robots as partners can improve productivity and, in some cases, even replace human employees.
  • It is more common in some parts of the production process — such as automated storage and warehousing for distribution companies.
  • You can look for process automation opportunities to reduce the need for in-person contact.
  • You can begin reskilling the workforce now to train for managing robotics in the future.
  • And so on…

While lights-out manufacturing may not be happening tomorrow, it is growing increasingly possible for the future. So, why not start preparing today, particularly as the world is recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic?

Digital transformation is a journey, and whether your end goal is lights-out operations or just a more effective business, the sooner you start on that path, the better.

What do you think about lights-out manufacturing? Is it a dream for your business? Share with us on social media. SHEA Global is on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn. 

Reach out to us today to start planning for your digital future and find solutions to optimize your manufacturing process for the post-COVID-19 world.