(Photo by Cory Woodward on Unsplash)
By Eric Davis, COO of Project DIAMOnD
It's easy to interpret the words “lights out” in a negative sense, but when it comes to the manufacturing industry, this phrase takes on a whole new meaning. Lights out manufacturing is an emerging concept that promises to revolutionize production lines by operating autonomously and without human labor. In this article, we'll discuss the concept of lights out manufacturing and dive into the potential benefits it can bring, as well as some of the barriers to its successful implementation.
What Is Lights Out Manufacturing?
Lights Out Manufacturing (LOM) is an automated manufacturing process where machines run independently without the need for human intervention. It enables the creation of so-called “dark factories,” which are factories that can operate through a combination of automation, remote monitoring, and artificial intelligence.
Removing human staff from the equation not only improves human experience by eliminating exposure to potentially dull, dirty, and dangerous work, but also allows for the precise control of production processes and a much higher level of efficiency. LOM relies heavily on automation, data collection and analysis, and predictive maintenance technologies such as robotics in order to run successfully.
In the automotive industry, lights out manufacturing is used to produce complex components that require a high degree of precision. This type of manufacturing is also seen in the aerospace, electronics and pharmaceutical industries.
Benefits of Lights Out Manufacturing
The primary benefits of lights out manufacturing are improved safety, reliability and efficiency. Automation reduces human error by eliminating manual processes that can lead to mistakes or quality issues. Automation also increases worker safety by reducing the need for workers to be in close proximity to potentially hazardous processes and environments.
On top of this, lights out manufacturing systems provide a much higher level of consistency than manual labor can achieve, leading to a product that is of a higher quality and more reliable. The automated nature of the system further reduces production times, resulting in less time spent producing each unit.
How Lights Out Manufacturing Will Change the Manufacturing Industry
Lights out manufacturing has the potential to revolutionize the way that mass production is performed. It can reduce costs associated with labor, increase production speeds and improve product quality while also decreasing environmental impact.
While automated technology was once reserved for the largest and most established facilities, it's now reached a level of cost-effectiveness that practically any organization can afford to leverage. The proliferation of Industry 4.0 at large is creating a reality in which digital operations are considered standard for any organization of scale.
As the technology continues to develop, more and more aspects of manufacturing will be able to be automated. The Internet of Things (IoT) is already playing a major role in connecting components and allowing for more efficient data collection. This could potentially enable additional capabilities, such as the ability to detect and respond to defects in real time.
How Additive Manufacturing Achieves Lights Out Manufacturing
Additive manufacturing provides the means to streamline production by combining what was previously done by a sequence of machines into one platform. 3D printers can additively manufacture complex and simple parts more accurately than subtractive, traditional machining. Furthermore, an additive manufacturing approach produces much less waste, eliminating the lights-out manufacturing need to automate waste collection and disposal. Batch production is another strength additive manufacturing brings to the table in relation to a lights out approach. Additive manufacturing can produce a precise number of parts in response to demand. This way, large areas of a facility will not need to be monitored or automated for the long-term storage solutions that are often required for excess parts created through traditional manufacturing.
Barriers to Implementing Lights Out Manufacturing
Within a matter of years, lights out manufacturing has gone from a fictional concept to a reality that many businesses are starting to implement. In doing so, however, many have begun to encounter unexpected barriers to success.
The concept of lights-out manufacturing sounds a bit scary because it paints a picture of a world different from the one we live in today. Human-driven factory operations have been the norm since the first industrial revolution, so there's bound to be some skepticism about introducing automation into existing systems.
Some business stakeholders are weary of automating everything for the impact it might have on their workforce. There's a common misconception that moving to Industry 4.0 means getting rid of human staff altogether - but this need not be the case. Automation can free up human workers to focus on higher-value tasks while eliminating mundane and repetitive work that was previously done by humans.
Education will be a key part of driving organizational buy-in on both the executive and operational levels.
Lack of Infrastructure
One of the biggest challenges companies face when implementing lights-out manufacturing is a lack of infrastructure. Many industrial systems are still operating on dated technologies, making it difficult to integrate with newer automated solutions.
The good thing about modernization, though, is that it doesn't have to happen overnight. Manufacturers can upgrade their legacy systems through incremental improvements — slowly, but surely replacing antiquated technologies with modern systems.
Even after companies have invested in infrastructure and new technologies, they need to make sure that their staff are ready for automation. It's not enough just to have the technology in place. Workers must understand and be able to effectively use it as well.
Organizations should focus on equipping people with the hard skills they'll need to operate automated systems, as well as the soft skills like communication and problem-solving which are essential for working in a lights-out manufacturing environment.
Cost of Implementation
Ultimately, the success of Industry 4.0 depends on whether organizations are willing to invest in new technology and training for their employees.
The cost of implementation can range from relatively low (for smaller companies that require fewer changes) to very high (for organizations with complex systems that need to be changed). But the potential long-term benefits can make it well worth it.
One missing piece of the puzzle with respect to lights out manufacturing's viability is part acquisition and fabrication. Robots have always been really good at assembling things with a great level of precision. Making things, on the other hand, sometimes requires human hands. Most factories use machine tools like lathes, mills, and presses to make parts for the assembly process. As these machines are quite expensive, most lights out manufacturing systems rely on either employees or outsourced fabrication services for their parts needs.
However, advances in additive manufacturing technologies are starting to make it possible for companies to produce parts in-house and without the need for human labor. 3D printers can create objects within a matter of hours, and often with a level of complexity that people can't achieve. These 3D printers are becoming increasingly affordable, making it possible for smaller companies to incorporate them into their lights out manufacturing systems. With enough units running, it's possible to have an at-scale production center with no human input.
With the ability to produce parts in-house also offers more control over the quality and cost of components. With 3D printers, companies can reduce their reliance on third-party vendors, and in turn, the risk of potential delays or supply chain issues.
Lights out manufacturing is an incredibly powerful concept with the potential to change assembly lines as we know them today. But just like any other step in the evolutionary process, its realization won't come without growing pains or hiccups.
For organizations looking to get started with lights out manufacturing, the best strategy is to start small by identifying one core process or area that they believe can be improved upon. With consideration for the barriers listed above, businesses can then prioritize solutions that will help them overcome those obstacles and successfully implement lights out manufacturing and fully realize the many benefits it has to offer.