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The Guide to Lights Out Manufacturing and Fully Automated Plants

Lights out manufacturing is when factories are completely automated and run without people, or with the “lights off”.

While often referenced during conversations about IIoTIndustry 4.0, and the smart factory, the concept of lights out manufacturing is probably more far-fetched, just because it’s a little ridiculous to think there are no people, at all.

Most manufacturers are capable of employing lights out manufacturing in their plants, but few do this as their only production method. People play an important part in running a plant, and as such, there are often portions of the manufacturing process that can be automated while people also provide the problem-solving and analytical skills needed to troubleshoot problems and improve processes. The two really have to work together.

We’ll dive into all of this and more throughout the blog, but for a quick overview, we’ll cover:

  • What is lights out manufacturing?
  • Why manufacturers would want to employ lights out manufacturing in their plant
  • The challenges manufacturers run into with fully automated plants
  • Why people are actually vital to the manufacturing process

What is Lights Out Manufacturing?

To reiterate, lights out manufacturing is when a plant operates with no human interaction. Products are made and delivered without people to complete the tasks. While it sounds great, in retrospect, many manufacturers don’t exclusively employ lights out manufacturing. Plants often employ a hybrid approach – some automated processes and some manual.

Of course, there are processes that can be run automatically, and that is absolutely a good thing, but when problems happen or new processes need to be developed, who is going to fix the problem or do that work? A machine can’t do it, that’s for sure.

We’ve seen this first hand. One of our customers is a job shop, making different parts every day. This particular customer makes parts that take a very long time, taking anywhere from 12 to 24 hours for a single completed product. The machines are set up and turned on. The programs just run, and no one needs to be there to monitor the process…. unless the machines stop, and then, a human must step in to fix the problem.

This is very common.

It isn’t limited to job shops, though. Lights out manufacturing can happen in a 3D printing company or an aerospace company or even a food and beverage manufacturer. If the manufacturer can figure out how to automate processes, those processes can run with very few or no people. Some companies do it all of the time depending on what they’re making and others, it’s only certain shifts. For example, let’s say a manufacturer runs the 1st and 2nd shift with people, but the 3rd shift is a single department and it’s completely automated, and it just runs on its own.

That’s the beauty of flexibility. Although lights out manufacturing is defined as a completely automated factory, manufacturers can employ the methodology in only the areas that make sense. Manufacturers don’t have to be completely “lights out” in every area.

The Benefits of Lights Out Manufacturing

Lights out manufacturing may increase efficiencies and lower costs. This is why manufacturers see the appeal in employing lights out manufacturing. There are no people to run the machines, and this inherently brings down costs. 

Without the cost of paying people, costs will decrease, and seemingly, efficiencies will improve because while humans inherently make mistakes, and that’s very natural, machines make fewer mistakes. This is where robots come in handy. Manufacturers couldn’t have employed lights out manufacturing until recently when robots were developed to perform these repetitive, manual tasks.

The benefits are great, but that’s only in a perfect world, right? We’re going to talk about the challenges of lights out manufacturing in the next section, but let’s just say one thing – you need people and hiccups will still happen, even with the use of robots and automated machines.

The Challenges of Lights Out Manufacturing

There are obviously challenges with lights out manufacturing. As with all automation, there are things that will go wrong. That’s just a fact of life as nothing is perfect. If you don’t have a reliable system in the plant that can detect problems and alert people when problems occur, you’re going to run into major setbacks. If no one is notified, how can the problem be fixed?

If a machine went down overnight, and you don’t know about it until 6 AM the next morning, that’s hours and hours of lost production time. Now, you have to make up for the lost work with unplanned overtime and if that doesn’t happen, a potentially late delivery to the customer.

Another challenge is that while the promise of no human interaction sounds appealing, you actually need people. Maybe there isn’t someone manually assembling pieces together, but you will need different types of people with different skills to make automation work. You need engineers, programmers, and maintenance people, just to name a few, to not only ensure the plant is operating to standard but to set up all of the processes in the first place. It’s a very different skill level required.

Not everything can be automated like the lights out manufacturing methodology promises. At least not yet.

Replacing Manual Processes

Lights out manufacturing will help manufacturers reduce the manual, tedious, and repetitive tasks that are time-consuming and error-prone. Eventually, automation will chip away at a lot of these tasks, and that’s a huge win for manufacturers.

Learn: See how Lyons Blow Molding replaced manual reporting and mistake-proofed the plant with Mingo Manufacturing Software. Read Now »

Automation chips away at stuff that isn’t new. Take, for example, coffee cups. Making coffee cups is not a new thing. If there’s a coffee cup, it’s made out of a certain material, and the process for making this coffee cup is tried and true. You can make automated machines that produce these coffee cups all day long. But, when someone invents something new, they need different parts and manufacturing processes. This is where lights out manufacturing aren’t feasible.

When the iPhone was invented, there weren’t any manufacturing processes made for producing iPhones. The same applies to Tesla, SpaceX, the list goes on and on. In the early 1900s, there wasn’t even a manufacturing process for producing the Model-T. All of these processes had to be invented, tested, and perfected before they could be automated.

At first, these new products are going to start out not highly automated until all of the details are ironed out, the production processes are laid out, and volume ramps up. All of those early steps are people problem solving and designing these systems to be able to build iPhones, Tesla parts, or even those early parts for Henry Ford’s Model-T. There are whole industries built up around prototyping.

Lights out manufacturing wouldn’t have worked in these particular situations, and that’s exactly why it will never be fully adopted for all things manufacturing.

People Make It Work

However, as we mentioned, there are immense benefits in automating some manufacturing processes. If you’re spending too much time on highly repetitive, time-consuming tasks, you could benefit from lights out manufacturing. The greatest thing is that it can be applied to virtually any vertical within manufacturing. It works for both high volume and repetitive manufacturers and job shops and everything in between.

Just this week, we were at a 3D printing company that makes completely custom products every single day. No day is the same. Their production times are long and can range from 4 hours to 2 days, yet they employ lights out manufacturing. Programs are loaded, materials are added, and the machines are turned on. It’s really as simple as that unless problems arise.

When problems arise, and they will, programmers, engineers, and maintenance people are there to fix the problems. This is what people inherently are good at. We’re problem solvers. We’re adapters. We’re not particularly suited to doing receptive tasks, day in and day out. Robots, automation, and lights out manufacturing give people the ability to use the skills they’re best suited for – being human and solving problems.

Picture of Bryan Sapot
Bryan Sapot
Bryan Sapot is a lifelong entrepreneur, speaker, CEO, and founder of Mingo. With more than 24 years of experience in manufacturing technology, Bryan is known for his deep manufacturing industry insights. Throughout his career, he’s built products and started companies that leveraged technology to solve problems to make the lives of manufacturers easier. Follow Bryan on LinkedIn here.