Automated systems are enabling production lines to run for 24 hours a day without human assistance. Is this "lights out" process the future of factory work?
Lights out, or unattended, manufacturing involves implementing a wide range of automated systems into production lines to enable complete or nearly complete self-guided production. The term comes from the idea that machines can run in a "lights out" environment, after humans have left the building.
Of course, it's not entirely human-free. Machines require programming and maintenance, while materials must be loaded and retrieved. But the streamlining of production through automation can greatly improve product quality and quantity, as well as lower expenses.
The benefits of such a system are obvious. Human workers have numerous requirements, such as lunch breaks, health insurance, careful supervision, air conditioning or heating and various other expenses. However, robots don't care about pay, benefits or the climate.
Another advantage is increased competitiveness, especially compared to lower-cost labor overseas in China. Lights out automation can be an effective way to keep more manufacturing work in the United States.
"I put my job on the line for that [multi-spindle] machine and fought almost every department in the building because at the time, everybody wanted to send our work to China," John Lang, machine shop manager at Otto Engineering, told Production Machining
. "I was convinced that the way to beat China is through technology and responsiveness. We had to come up with a way to make our parts inexpensively and quickly, and I saw the multi-spindle as a way to do that."
Members of the company who were on the fence quickly saw the benefit when the multi-spindle technology went live. As Lang explained, "We received bigger, quicker payback. Even though we're making [parts] faster, we're making them better."
Chasco Machine and Manufacturing has also embraced lights out manufacturing, having implemented 24-hour production in its Brooksville, Fla., facility. Running machine tools 24 hours a day helps cut down on operating costs and allows the company to extend the life of its tools. Chasco has combined automation technology with its own proprietary systems to maximize these benefits. As Chasco's owner, Jeff Roth, told Industrial Machinery Digest
, "We invest in technology to produce more for less."
Japanese robot manufacturer FANUC has an exceptional lights out record, with some of its lines operating unattended for weeks. As the Economist
points out, FANUC is capable of using robots to make other robots without human involvement.
However, unattended manufacturing also presents a new set of concerns for manufacturers and factory owners. Machines are very good at repeating the same motions and functions over and over again without change, but if these motions aren't properly calculated, they can produce excess scrap.
To reduce waste, companies need to invest in skilled in-house programmers or purchase their machine tools from providers that offer programming services. Both options can be expensive. Additionally, an automated CNC machine requires someone (or something) to both feed it raw stock and collect the machined parts on the other side.
Circumventing these problems requires a machine or human operator, but extra robots can be expensive and using a person defeats the purpose of introducing an autonomous process.
Some manufacturers have experimented with alternative solutions. Frentzel Products Inc. explained to American Machinist
that it faced this dilemma when removing parts from a new CNC machine, and the company addressed it by installing a Royal Products Rota-Rack
. The Rota-Rack system is a turntable-style parts-catcher that unloads machined parts safely, efficiently and without clogging or damaging the parts flow.
Despite these stop-gap measures, current robot technology is still incapable of doing things that humans are good at, such as assembling components. A new automation trend is robots that have the ability to work alongside humans, rather than replace them. Organizations like Germany's Fraunhofer Institute are trying to make robots that are safe for near-proximity work with humans and that can respond to or follow voice instructions.
Making robots safer, cheaper and more efficient would open automation to more small- and midsized manufacturers. As Rodney Brooks, co-founder of iRobot (which created the Roomba, among other devices), told the Economist, "The PC didn't get rid of office workers, it changed the tasks they did," much as human-collaborative robots may someday influence production methods in positive new ways.