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Lights-out manufacturing: Fact or Fiction

The factory of tomorrow will be fully autonomous. The emergence of new technologies such as machine learning and industrial IoT (IIoT) are shaping a new era for the manufacturing workforce. While autonomous manufacturing may sound like something out of a sci-fi film, the idea itself isn’t anything new as digital innovations are already disrupting traditional industries. Soon a business’ success and failure will depend on their ability to adapt to this evolving technology because chances are, if you’re not using it you can bet your competitors are. No longer is it a wish list item, but a business imperative.  

What is lights-out manufacturing?  

Lights-out manufacturing is quite literally thatIt refers to factories that are fully autonomous and don’t require any human intervention. This allows them to freely operate without being handicapped by human constraints such as lighting or heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), hence the label ‘lights-out’.  

While factories that can properly function without human reliance is still rare, the ascent of automation has been largely reliant on IIoT. It has been used to better manage data collection and visibility to help drive companies towards better business decisions. Their ability to identify problems and calculate key performance issues on the factory floor in real-time is the backbone behind an efficient lights-out factory.  

Industrial computers can be used in conjunction with interactive HMI displays to identify production issue in real-time and make reactive changes immediately. 

Is lights-out manufacturing right for you?  

While many companies are starting to jump on the bandwagon, lights-out manufacturing is not the end-all solution for everything and may not be the right direction for you. For one, moving away from independent machines towards full automation can be a daunting task. That when other factors such as economic barriers and educational foundations into play, the decision becomes less straightforward.  

One of the greatest risks for switching towards full automation is the need to specifically design a factory floor for lights-out operation. Replacing existing equipment to be sensor ready for effective connectivity and interconnecting every aspect of the factory process is an expensive endeavor. Additionally, you would need to educate your workforce up-to-speed on the new systems for real-time production monitoring. All these points need to be carefully considered before investing in a lights-out factory.  

How automation technology is shaping a new era for manufacturing workforce? 

Factories are no longer masses of machinery operating independently, but a complex network of cyber physical systems communicating in real-time. Industry 4.0 has been a major driving force towards full automation, integrating sophisticated software and analytics into mainstream manufacturing. From improved machine vision to programmable logic controller (PLC), the opportunities on offer from advanced robotics is massive. Their ability to suit any task that is dangerous, dull, or not requiring problem solving skills has led to improved throughput rates and better responsiveness.  

But the use of robotics in manufacturing labor has people worried scared about having their jobs replaced by programmable machines. In many ways, robotics is the future as they contribute to data collection and visibility to drive smarter business decisions.  But make no mistake, highly skilled humans are still a part of the process. While low-skilled labor will be replaced in lights-out manufacturing, there will always be a need for human supervision for the most advanced level of technology.  

Industry 4.0 is pushing for a new type of worker, one who is interested in managing technology rather than doing manual labor. As Lights-out manufacturing is only projected to keep advancing, driven by business incentives, the ability for companies to continuously improve and educate their workforce will determine their prospective success.  

Bringing Industry 4.0 and Automation  into Focus with Computer Vision

The automation driving Industry 4.0 relies on industrial PCs capable of understanding the rich visual data produced and gathered at the facility. By employing machine learning algorithms, computer vision is achieved through real-time object recognition and inference analysis.  Here are three leading applications for computer vision for industrial automation: 

1. Machine Vision
Machine Vision computers perform automated functions from image input, from barcode and optical character reading to color analysis to comparison inspection with far greater speed and reliability than human monitoring can deliver.

2. Metrology
Metrology computers employs exacting precision to detect flaws imperceptible to human sight, and can use computer vision intelligence to initiate maintenance, equipment redirection, system recalibration and resource reallocation.
  
3. Robotics
Robotics process visual data related to their tasks and surrounding to make intelligent performance decisions. They anticipate and adjust to changes in their workflow and environment, creating a safer, more productive facility.