Lights Out Manufacturing
What is Lights Out Manufacturing?
Lights out manufacturing is a methodology which applies the theory of fully automating a factory to where little to no human presence is required on site. Raw materials would enter the factory and then leave as a finished product without human intervention.
Many factories are capable of “running with the lights off” but few do. Some use this method between shifts or as a separate shift to meet demands or save on labour costs. Other factories may run as normal factories but have ‘Lights Out’ cells within the factory.
How does Lights Out Manufacturing Work?
The process requires the factory to be purpose built with this method in mind. To make the processes automated a myriad of equipment and machinery is required. This can include machine vision, additive manufacturing equipment, sensors and robots. It also requires a great deal of processing power for processes like machine learning, high frequency data collection, the Industrial Internet of Things, edge computing and cloud data.
People will still be needed for this method as high skilled operatives that can maintain the machinery and robotics and monitor the processes.
What was the first Lights Out Factory?
In 1784, a millwright in Pennsylvania owned by Oliver Evans used the first continuous production line. It used a range of wooden shafts and gears and leather belts to transfer power to a sequence of machines connected to the same waterwheel. He used conveyor belts to automatically move wheat from one operation to another, so the mill required much fewer people. There only needed to be a person to pour the wheat into the hopper at the beginning of the process and another at the end to fill the sacks with flour.
Past and Current Lights Out Factories
One of the most renowned lights out factories in operation today is the Fanuc complex. It’s complex containing 22 factories use their own robots to produce new robots 24 hours a day. They are even able to turn off their heating and air conditioning.
A past, almost, lights out production facility was created by A.O. Smith Corp. in the early 1920’s. Their assembly line performed more than 500 separate operations including a wide range of high-speed tasks like hole punching, riveting and welding. The production line could produce 1 vehicle frame every 8 seconds and it was running almost non-stop use until 1958. The factory only required 180 people to produce 10,000 frames a day compared to their manual process before, when they required 2000 people to produce 3000 a day.
Ford in the 1940’s also fully automated one of their stamping plants. They used “iron hands” to machine tend, inspect, gauge and weigh engine parts. The factory consisted of 41 in line transfer type machines of 2 basic lines. They were linked in a continuous process where manual handling of the engine block was only required once, at the loading point. Its old process required 150 separate machines each with an operator.
What are the Motivations for Lights Out Factories?
One of the main motivations of implementing a Lights Out factory is being able to fill labour shortages, to be able to produce at maximum output most or all the time. This also boosts productivity and improves product turnaround time. Furthermore, the machines do not have to sit idle whilst the factory is waiting to gain enough labour to increase production or while people are not on shift overnight or at the weekends.
A Lights Out method will reduce the need for workers to do harsh manual labour and machine tending, enabling them to do more tasks within the company that require high flexibility. These workers can also work remotely and monitor the facilities from a computer from anywhere. As workers are not carrying out manual tasks it will also reduce the amount of workplace accidents.
Another major motivation could be the increased product quality that comes with this methodology. As more automated machines and robots are used, which are generally more accurate than humans, the number of defects will be reduced. This will help to reduce scrap and rework costs which has a knock-on effect of improving profits. These cost savings can also be passed onto the customers and improve the manufacturers competitiveness.
This methodology improves a manufacturers environmental and carbon footprint. As very few to no people are required to be on-site, the facility can reduce its heating and lighting requirements. Less waste material is also produced using machines and robots, further improving the manufacturers carbon footprint. These processes can also reduce the costs in running the facility.
What are the Disadvantages of a Lights out Factory?
The factory floor must be specifically designed for the Lights Out method. They are also difficult to set up and reconfigure with the lead time of setting up possibly being months. This means significant capital expenditure must happen which may not be possible for all manufacturers.
Most of the time, labour cannot be completely excluded as operatives are still needed to adjust machinery, if necessary, monitor the production line and quality check the products at the end of the line. If no one is there to monitor the lines and something does go wrong, it could result in tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of scrap parts or damage to machines.
This method is only efficient for large production volumes over long periods of time which may only be suitable for large, well-established manufacturers. Furthermore, complex tasks may be more difficult to roll out or experience enough value from.