Why lights off manufacturing may not be a desirable objective

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The ability to manufacture goods without any manual involvement sounds like an attractive option. However, it may not make sense in all – or indeed most – scenarios. There are many challenges associated with establishing a fully automated production line, and except for mass-produced goods, where no changes are expected, it may not be a desirable objective to aim for a fully automated production line. 

Limitation 1: May limit flexibility

The first limitation of lights out manufacturing is that it may limit the flexibility of the firm’s operations. Getting a production line to work completely without any manual involvement requires the entire production to be optimized. Once optimized, however, it can be difficult to change. This can limit the ability to make changes to the product or operations. 

Limitation 2: May be excessively costly to achieve

Another limitation with lights out manufacturing is that it may be excessively expensive to achieve. While there may be ways that automating the production line can improve the operations, there are also aspects where the automating costs is hard to make the business case for. 

Limitation 3: May increase the lead times to get the production line operating

Establishing lights off manufacturing may substantially increase the lead times involved in getting a new product to market. For certain products – where it is possible to plan many months in advance – this may not be a limitation. For other products where it is important to be quick to market, aiming for an entirely automated production line may not be worth the difficulty and delays invovled. 

Limitation 4: May not be a realistic objective

Finally, achieving lights-out manufacturing may not be a realistic option. The production volumes may not make it feasible to ever achieve fully automated production – to such an extent that it requires no (or little) oversight. Aiming for a largely automated production line, although with some manual involvement in places, may be a more realistic target to be aiming towards. 

Thinking through where lights off manufacturing makes sense

Rather than seeing lights off manufacturing as the ultimate goal, a better approach may be to actively consider the areas of the production line that would benefit from some degree of automation, gradually incrementing towards automation. Carefully considering where the case can be made for full automation and where it is more important to maintain the flexibility of having some manual involvement may be a better approach than simply aiming for full automation.