Lights out manufacturing: The capabilities needed to succeed

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What is lights off manufacturing

Lights-out manufacturing is an approach to manufacturing where you look to remove all manual involvement from the production process. The facilities can operate ‘lights-out’ – that is, without any manual oversight – because the operations are entirely automated, with no need for operators to be on the production floor.

Whether or not the facility actually operates in pitch-blackness is a little bit immaterial – there may still be some benefits of being able to see what is going on in the production – but the key thing is that the facility could, in theory, operate without anyone being involved. 

The capabilities required to succeed at lights off manufacturing

Automation capabilities

The primary underlying capability in lights-out manufacturing is automation capabilities – both in the manufacturing of the various components and in the assembly of the final product. Such manufacturing processes must work seamlessly together to allow the final product to be produced without any form of manual involvement. 

Part stacking and movement

As well as automated manufacturing and assembly, the operations need strong capabilities in the handling of the products. This involves transporting them reliably around the facility, likely with conveyors and pick-and-place robots to accurately transition the raw materials, intermediary components, and final products between stages in the manufacturing and assembly process.

Quality control

As well as automation in the manufacturing and movement processes, automated quality control is also critically important. Being able to accurately identify production defects automatically is important to remove them from the production line. 

Continual improvement

A final capability that underpins being able to operate ‘lights-off’ is a strong emphasis on continual improvement to remove any mistakes and ensure that everything in the production line is operating smoothly. There will inevitably be some teething issues – mistakes that occur only infrequently. Achieving a production environment where everything is operating smoothly such that no manual involvement is requires a dedication to eliminating such mistakes from the production process. 

Final thoughts: Is the benefits of lights-out manufacturing worth it

While there is a clear allure of lights-out manufacturing – the facility working seamlessly without needing any employee involvement – there are also significant costs and time involved in setting up such facilities. This includes both the cost involved in establishing the facility, as well as the time required to make even minor changes to the operation process. Thus, while there may be some setting such as car assembly where lights-out manufacturing has clear advantages – in many cases, the additional difficultly involved in moving from a relatively automated manufacturing and assembly process to entirely automated may not be worth the substantial financial costs involved. Lights-out manufacturing should not be an end-in-itself, but rather an evaluation made of the appropriate level of automation for this particular production process.