Should Manufacturers Turn Off The Lights?
| By: Emmet Cole, Contributing Editor
At the foot of Mount Fuji, Japan, is a robot manufacturing facility operated by industrial robot giant FANUC. The facility has been operating what’s known as ‘lights-out manufacturing’ –an approach to manufacturing in which processes are fully automated and require little or no human intervention. Lights-out automation enables FANUC to produce more than 6,000 robots each month at this location.
“That facility is probably the premiere factory in the world for lights-out manufacturing. It’s all robots making robots and it’s completely automated,” says Rob Taylor, Aftermarket Support Manager at FANUC America.
Transitioning to lights-out manufacturing can potentially save up to 20% of labor costs and bring about a 30% increase in productivity output, according to a 2021 Research&Markets report. The report also sounded a cautionary note, however: While adoption of lights-out manufacturing is expected to rise over the coming years, today just a small number of pioneering companies, like FANUC, currently operate large scale, lights-out manufacturing facilities.
The most common drivers of interest in lights-out manufacturing are shortage of and increasing cost of labor. Improved quality control, process monitoring, and reduced footprint are further potential benefits depending on the application, says Brian Kalasz, Process Engineering Manager at leading integrator, Axis Automation.
Full lights-out manufacturing extends beyond looking at a singular process or set of technologies, to include how the facilities interact with the product flow and the support staff required to ensure effective and continuous operations, notes Kalasz.
While the term ‘lights-out manufacturing’ conjures images of giant facilities that humans never enter, the reality is somewhat different. Most of the interest in lights-out manufacturing is from smaller job shops rather than large factories and most deployments are shift-based, says FANUC’s Taylor.
“Typically, large companies have the capacity and capabilities to run a second or third job shop, whereas smaller organizations do not. Also, rather than round the clock lights-out operations, you will find humans working the first shift and then setting up the machine to work for an additional 5-6 hours overnight through a normal Monday to Friday.”
Simple processes that take a long time to complete are the most conducive to lights-out manufacturing, Taylor explains. Examples include a shop that has a mill running a program with a very long cycle time that can just run attended after you just set up the tooling and hit cycle start and leave. Another example would be lathes equipped with a bar feeder system automatically loading parts to enable unattended operation for hours.
Axis Automation’s Kalasz has seen interest in lights-out manufacturing increase over the last couple years.
“Often concepts are explored, evaluated and scaled back to a system more advanced than the customers current technology but not a full lights-out implementation.”
While the engineering challenges around lights-out manufacturing are surmountable, the technology may not be quite ready for more complex manufacturing processes, says Brandon Minor, Founder and CEO at Tangram Vision.
“In multistep pipelines where, for example, you are not just checking parts but assembling them as well and bringing them between stations, the technology is not fully there yet. There’s a lot of work right now trying to get that piece together to bring lights-out manufacturing to where it needs to be.”
On the other hand, says Minor, processes such as visual inspection can work day and night without the need for humans with calibration or sensor expertise to be part of the loop. The Tangram Vision platform is designed to help bridge gaps like these in complex, multistep manufacturing processes, such as tasks that involve mobile robots taking items to and from workstations to be assembled.
“Without competent calibration and sensor communication in those more mobile systems, at some point you’re going to hit –most likely literally-- obstacles in your performance, whether that be misalignment or navigation problems,” explains Minor. “The Tangram Vision Platform can automatically calibrate your mobile robots and sensors on the fly without human intervention.”
Technology readiness varies greatly depending on the product, process, and the commitment to preparing for the advancement in technology, explains Axis Automation’s Kalasz.
“We do have some individual systems that have been very close to lights-out with limited add to complexity. The move to full lights-out with the flow of incoming product to outgoing product untouched is a full facility impact. This involves full automation of WIP, and product flow typically AGV or other product conveyance with tracking systems throughout the facility to monitor status remotely.”
Compared to other promises of the future like autonomous cars, lights-out manufacturing is “more practical and pertinent,” says Tangram Vision’s Minor.
“The industry space for robotics has always been so large because these are already controlled environment and they are designated spaces where automation already happens. Widespread lights-out manufacturing is very attainable if not in the near future, then on a short horizon, because the structure is already there, it just needs to be expanded.”
FANUC’s Taylor also expects to see lights-out manufacturing become more common in the future, but notes that the length of time each machine can run unattended will always be a potential limiting factor.
Meanwhile, Axis Automation’s Kalasz observes that while lights-out manufacturing will definitely be more common in future, it is “not likely to replace all of what we think of when we picture manufacturing today, at least not in our lifetime. But there is great potential.”
So, should manufacturers ‘just turn off the lights’ by transitioning to fully automated facilities? It depends. The specific applications being automated, budget constraints, the technologies required, and the overall complexity of the manufacturing process are just some of the factors that will determine the feasibility of lights-out adoption. In the meantime, humans –and lighting—will remain key elements of most manufacturing facilities, most of the time.