The True Story Behind “Lights Out” Automation
Does any plant manager really hit the lights, lock up and let the factory run itself until morning? Maybe a few, but most probably have at least one person minding the facility overnight. While the term “Lights Out” has come into popular usage, a more accurate description might be “Unattended Operation.” Whatever you call it, the complete automation of a work cell enables parts to be machined from A to Z without worker intervention – and it can offer real advantages to your business.
The obvious reason to use unattended operation is to increase production without adding resources – including labor, capital equipment and floorspace. Unlike human employees, industrial robots can work endlessly without stopping for breaks. The assets you already have work for a longer period of time, and that means additional profit. ROI for adding an unattended system can generally be realized in under two years.
Automated systems can offer outstanding flexibility as well. The line can be used as a permanent third shift or to handle rush jobs. If demand fluctuates, you can open or close the shift without ramping up or reducing your staff.
Before You Begin
To get the most out of unattended operations, there are a few things to consider. First is your setup. Not all machining processes will work with the concept. The method is typically well suited for high volumes of the same part. Low volumes or a mix of parts usually require operator intervention for changing tools or prompting the system for the next step.
The entire material handling system must also be purpose built for unattended operations. Remember there is no operator to feed incoming, or remove outgoing, parts at intervals. If you expect the job to run for 8-10 hours at a time, it must have the capacity to load raw materials for that period of time and remove and store the finished parts (or send them on to the next station).
Choosing an Integration Partner
Holdups are more impactful without an operator nearby for a quick fix. To protect your capital investments, automated systems designed for unattended operations need to be designed and installed with an exceptional level of expertise. The system will require more frequent handshakes between stages, for example – validations and verifications that fixtures and doors are open or closed, etc., to ensure that each stage proceeds in seamless synchronization to create perfect parts without breakdowns.
Investigate potential integration partners carefully. Are they RIA certified? Do they have the experience and expertise to seamlessly install automated systems that will support unattended operations for any type of situation? Do they have a sophisticated design methodology that includes exhaustive feasibility and cycle time analyses? Can they offer computer simulations based on the movement of actual robots? Will they run sample parts to ensure that the design is based on real-world results and not just theory? Make sure you get satisfactory answers to these questions up front. Once an installation takes place it may be too late.
Working in the Dark
While working “Lights Out” is a worthy goal, we never underestimate the value of the human element. Most businesses will find it beneficial to have an operator or two standing by overnight or on weekends. But that’s okay. The productivity of an unattended operation system is phenomenal, even with the lights on.