Is lights-out manufacturing worth it?: The advantages and disadvantages

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Lights-out manufacturing is the extreme of automated manufacturing – the ability to make your product without any manual involvement, such that you can turn off the lights in your facility and operate in the dark. Everything is fully automated, from material handling, the production process itself, the inspection of the product, and the entire coordination process in the facility. This article explores the benefits and limitations of establishing full automation in your operations. 

Advantages of lights-out manufacturing

Consistent and reliable operations

One of the main advantages of lights-out manufacturing is that it operates consistently and reliably. Achieving the ability to operate without any manual involvement means ensuring that all potential sources of line failure are addressed. You simply can’t operate light-out unless you have a very reliable facility. Achieving the ability to operate fully automatically thus illustrates how consistent and reliable your operations are – with benefits for both efficiency and potentially the quality of the ultimate product. 

No labor required

Another advantage of lights-out manufacturing is that it reduces the labor that is required in your manufacturing operations. While there is a substantial fixed cost in setting up the lines, this is offset over time since the ongoing cost of running the operations is likely substantially reduced. At the extreme, your operations can continue 24 hours a day with only the most minimal staff required to oversee the operations. 

Disadvantages of lights-out manufacturing

Can be costly to achieve

One of the key limitations of lights-out manufacturing is that it can be very costly to achieve. The operations require substantial investments in automated manufacturing equipment, which may be many times greater than the ongoing costs involved in manual production. 

Difficult to setup and reconfigure

Another issue with lights-out manufacturing is that it can be very difficult to initially establish and reconfigure should there be changes to the product. Beyond the cost associated with this is the lead time involved in setting up the production line – potentially many months to get everything working properly.

Depending on the product, and whether there will likely be substantial design changes required over time, the lead time involved in establishing the production line may delay your ability to launch your products. Thus, particularly in settings where being quick to market is important, a fully automated production line may cause undesirable delays in launching your products. 

Final thoughts: Consider when lights-out manufacturing may be beneficial

It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that fully automated production lines are the goal and that you should be striving for a fully-lights-out manufacturing line. While there are some situations where this can be beneficial, there are many others where the challenges involved in going fully automated do not outweigh the substantial costs involved. As such, for many manufacturing operations, it is often better not to be striving for this, but rather to be carefully considering where in your operations you would benefit from automation, and where you are better continuing to use labor in your operations.