When I’m in the field talking with customers, there are two things I often hear. The first is the lack of qualified staffing and how it hinders reaching operational KPI goals. The second is that business expansion is almost impossible due to not being able to find additional employees, the necessary space, or the capital dollars needed.
This is when I bring up the idea of a lights-out operation. In manufacturing, lights-out means operating without a staffed team on site. Machines and operations are developed and set up to run without any employees present. To be successful in lights-out manufacturing, you need to wrap your mind around these key concepts:
Automation. Your equipment needs to be able to be loaded, unloaded, and tooled without human interaction. For example, in a machine shop, you need to have bar feeders that can hold a whole shift's worth of material. If you have a mechanical screw machine, you need to ensure this equipment can be retrofitted with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi communication and controls, so it can be shut down remotely if an issue arises. Tool monitoring is needed to detect tool failure and communicate and/or shut down equipment if failure occurs.
Industry 4.0 is an all-encompassing term for machine connectivity and data management. This is needed to ensure parts that are made lights-out are tracked, ensuring quality and tractability in case something goes wrong. Connectivity is also needed to ensure sensors can communicate with machines and monitoring systems, as well as transfer data for storage and analysis.
Workload. You need to have jobs that are conducive or can be designed to run lights-out without affecting your workload, such as EDM jobs that have long burning times or high-volume screw machine-type parts like fittings. This is also where your automation and lean manufacturing can work together, combining two or more processes and equipment into one cell. This allows you to run the complete process lights-out. For example, a bakery needs to make dough in batches, let it raise, divide the dough, fill the forms, run it through the oven, and then remove the bread for cool down, slicing, and packaging. This entire process can be done without human interaction if your automation is set up in a cell configuration. All of your processes need to be connected in pull-sequence.
Staff. You need to have knowledgeable technical staff that can handle the conversion to lights-out. You will need IT (information technology), programmers that understand the processing, as well as skilled maintenance and set-up staff. If you do not have these resources in house, I highly recommend that you reach out to companies that have experience with implementing lights-out. Every manufacturing industry has consultants and integrators that can help with the transition. In addition to the actual implementation, you need to ensure your sales staff and material managers are on board. Running parts lights-out will increase your output and need for materials on hand. In addition, you need to consider managing your shipping schedule very closely since your flow of finished product will increase.
As you see, going lights-out is not done by flipping a switch. It takes good planning and foresight. If you do it right, lights-out manufacturing can provide your business with great benefits, such as:
I hope you see how lights-out manufacturing can help you increase productivity despite labor shortages, increase capacity, and grow your business.