A lights-out factory, also called a dark factory, is one where requirements for human activity are so minimal that the facility can operate in the dark with zero human intervention onsite. After numerous unsuccessful attempts at creating a lights-out factory, successful efforts beginning in 2001 have been widely publicized and discussed. As manufacturing companies consider what the “factory of the future” will look like, autonomous production within a lights-out factory seems likely to expand across the industrial spectrum.
Lights-out factories, and more commonly, lights-out manufacturing cells, are possible today because of the development and maturity of numerous automated machines and robots, as well as comprehensive and proven manufacturing operations management (MOM) software. Most automation is able to perform tasks with no human intervention. MOM software has the capacity to orchestrate fully automated manufacturing processes. This software also provides visibility into autonomous production processes. Human stakeholders can remotely oversee lights-out operations and receive alerts to perform complementary activities or interventions.
The lights-out factory is most easily implemented for simple mass production of a standard product on a fixed schedule. A completely dark factory becomes more difficult (though not impossible) as products grow in complexity and mass customization creates a large number of product variants. Manufacturers experiencing these trends may benefit from a “lights-sparse” factory floor, in which lights-out manufacturing is confined to specific operations and/or areas. In this way, many manufacturers could gain the advantages of autonomous production without making a complete transition to a full lights-out factory.
The ability of many manufacturers to implement lights-sparse operations relies on recent developments in machinery and manufacturing processes. Some of the technological advancements that have enabled autonomous production include:
Digital industries software is also critical to successful lights-out implementations. Manufacturing engineering software, which supports planning, design and simulation of manufacturing processes, enables manufacturers to design lights-sparse operations virtually and validate them before investing in the shop floor production station. Integrated manufacturing operations management systems close the gap between digital design and engineering work and actual manufacturing operations. Once a lights-sparse work cell has been planned and validated, a MOM system orchestrates manufacturing operations with automation in loop to match the plan.
Central to the industrial software that supports lights-out manufacturing is the comprehensive digital twin. As the virtual representation of each physical product and the processes associated with its manufacture, as well as product performance in the hands of the end user, the comprehensive digital twin captures the full product life, giving a manufacturer visibility into fully automated production in a dark factory.
Implementing crewless operational areas on the shop floor, or crewless phases of the manufacturing process, a lights-sparse factory generates new efficiencies, lower costs, and in some instances, improved quality compared to conventional operations.