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How automation is transforming the future of manufacturing

The term lights out manufacturing refers to a manufacturing plant or factory that operates non-stop without the need for human beings to be physically present. Industry insiders coined this phrase in recognition of the fact that the lights don’t even need to be on for robots to continue working around the clock.

It’s not even necessary to keep the heat or air conditioning turned on in many cases, according to the president of the established FANUC facility in Japan. The practice is now gaining widespread acceptance in the United States, although manufacturing companies must first have automation systems in place before taking advantage of this technology.

Midwest Engineering Systems (MWS) is a company based in Wisconsin that provides automation solutions and customised machine design for its customers. Although MES has produced the machines capable of running a lights out manufacturing plant for 25 years, the technology has only caught on in the United States in the past few years. Many shop leaders who were previously hesitant about relying solely on non-human operations have been pushed in that direction by the most recent economic recession and the financial realities of maintaining a full-time workforce regardless of market conditions.

Not every company that wants to implement lights out manufacturing is able to do it. Before installing the necessary machinery for new customers, MWS evaluates the anticipated two-year return on investment (ROI) in relation to quality, labour, scrap, and a process called production-throughput predictability. If it would take more than two years for the manufacturing plant to reach a break-even ROI, MWS does not consider it a good candidate to implement lights out manufacturing.

Cost Savings and the Evolving Role of Manufacturing Plant Workers

Industry experts have long stated that reducing the cost of labour is key to remaining competitive and consistently posting profits. Company leaders have increasingly embraced Smart Manufacturing to achieve these goals. However, it hasn’t turned out exactly as they might have expected. Manufacturing plants that have incorporated Smart Manufacturing over the last two decades certainly look different, but that’s not necessarily because they have fewer workers.

As robots continually take over work duties formerly performed by humans, displaced manufacturing workers are taking on new roles rather than leaving the industry altogether. They now perform trouble-shooting duties, analyse production, and make decisions about when to replace malfunctioning robots or bring in new ones with even greater capabilities. This had led to the need for continuing education and training because relying on the Internet of Things means that manufacturing plants and their workers must continue to evolve or risk becoming irrelevant.

Although some industry insiders predict that increasingly complex machines and artificial intelligence will eliminate the need for human workers altogether, others feel just as strongly that running a manufacturing plant will always require human decision-making skills. According to a 2015 article by Industry Week, the use of robots in manufacturing is expected to grow by 10 per cent annually through at least 2025. As the demand goes up, the cost of owning and operating the robots goes down. For example, it costs $50,000 less to run a spot welder today than it did when plants first implemented automation. This means the typical manufacturing plant can expect to save up to 33 per cent in overall labor costs. Put another way, it costs approximately $4 per hour to operate a robot for routine tasks while the average labourer earns $24 per hour plus benefits.

Placing Robots in Non-Safe Work Environments

A robotic workforce has a clear advantage where the safety of human workers is a concern. When implementing Smart Manufacturing, it’s essential for factory leaders to evaluate the processes that are most suitable to becoming automated due to safety issues or the inability of a human worker to keep pace with the various machines. For example, the company may produce parts that require working in a highly toxic environment due to extremely high temperatures, dangerous fumes, and high payloads. To put a human worker in this situation is to risk him or her becoming seriously injured as well as having to pay long-term workers’ compensation claims.

In the above scenario, implementing lights out manufacturing with robots during the overnight hours ensures that the work gets completed on time and no one sustains any injuries. However, those setting up the automated processes must feel completely confident in it.

Because no one will be there to tend to the machines if they fail, manufacturing plant managers need to rely on digital tools to produce the desired output if there is no opportunity to test the robots before going lights out.

Image Credit: Baloncici / 123RF Stock Photo