Lights Out! How Automation is Disrupting the Future of Manufacturing.

The prospect of endless rows of capital equipment continuously manufacturing parts and products with no downtime is appealing to many businesses. With advances in automation, manufacturers are experimenting with “lights out manufacturing,” a term describing round-the-clock manufacturing that continues even when the lights traditionally would go off. A reduced need for human workers and the ability to keep production lines running 24 hours a day would suggest higher profits. While certainly an alluring goal, there are considerations for those who wish to pursue lights out manufacturing, and lessons to be learned from those who are already using the process.

Disruptive Technologies and Business

The concept of technology will replace jobs and roles traditionally filled by actual people is not a new one. Early 20th-century literature warned of robots taking over the world and even predicted some of the technological advances we have today. However, the speed with which technology has advanced in recent years now forces manufacturers to re-think many of the ways they do business. Disruptive technologies driving this shift include 3D printing, cloud computing, and now advanced automation and robotics in manufacturing.

Examples of Factory Automation

During the 1980’s, America’s car manufacturers were losing to the Japanese counterparts. Many saw the performance gap as a result of a lack of automation in American factories. Detroit’s car-makers envisioned a future production floor featuring robots and lights out manufacturing, but the technology wasn’t ready at the time. Today, things have changed drastically as a select few companies are making full automation a reality.

One such company is Japanese-based robot maker Fanuc, a $50-billion industrial firm hidden away in the woods near Mount Fuji.  Fanuc has 22 factories that employ scores of bright yellow robots that work 24 hours a day, creating, even more, bright yellow robots.  Just one of its 86,000 square-foot factories is staffed by only four people at a time.  Fanuc’s machine tools are used by such companies as Apple and Tesla.

A US-based company heavily involved in factory automation is Midwest Engineering Systems (MWES).  This Wisconsin-based firm helps manufacturers to go lights-out by providing custom machine designs and automation systems.  The company provides clients with studies that determine the advantages of automation, including potential return on investment.

The Future of Lights Out Manufacturing

The evolution towards fully automated factories is a process that began decades ago.  Recent advances in automation and the pressure of rising wages in some areas have accelerated progress in recent years. Today, lights out manufacturing is employed with increasing frequency.  However, not every part and process lends itself to lights out manufacturing. Some processes are simply too complex to manage without human intervention. In other industries, there is too much of a variance in orders to justify such an investment in automation.  The most suitable processes for automation are those where assembly is repetitive and often too intricate for human hands, such as with electronics.

Economists and policy makers have noted the impact of lights out manufacturing.  In a recent report to Congress, White House economists calculated an 83 percent chance that employees making under $20 per hour would eventually lose their jobs to robots.  Online retailer, Amazon, has already replaced many warehouse workers with robots.  For businesses and investors, the rise in profits is good news.  The hope is that displaced workers will go on to find better, more valuable roles in this changing economic landscape.


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