3 Scenarios for Lights‐Out Automation in Post‐Covid Manufacturing

Courtesy of Paul Denmark, senior consultant at Ultra Consultants.

We are a full year into the COVID‐19 pandemic and its related impact on manufacturing, and we are starting to see a return to normalcy – a new normal – that includes social distancing and safer‐at‐work strategies. As COVID‐19 capacity constraints and social-distancing requirements seem to be fixtures in manufacturing now, there is a new interest in lights‐out automation.

Lights‐out automation — where machines run unattended and/or remotely — makes it possible to maintain production with minimal or zero human involvement. Automation increases the visibility of operations at critical points of the manufacturing process. During last year’s shutdowns, manufacturers that enabled lights‐out manufacturing shined as positive examples of business continuity.

Because robotics and other machines can run in the dark and under a wide range of temperatures, one frequently cited benefit of lights‐out automation is savings in lighting, heating, and cooling. Given the cost of the transition, a lights‐out automation program will not pay for itself in less than a couple of years.

Another argument for introducing lights‐out automation is improved capacity, for example, saving space with auto‐retrieval. To date, most automated retrieval systems have remained prohibitively expensive and have proven to be problematic unless used under highly predictable and repetitive operations. What’s more, they often require skilled human operators to fulfill the kinds of tasks that involve adjustments and on‐the‐fly thinking. With humans still needed in the loop, the value proposition of reducing space, at this time, is counter to COVID‐19 compliance and physical distancing requirements.

In general, while a large‐scale lights‐out automation strategy may make sense for large manufacturers, for machine shops it’s often far too costly. There are three specific scenarios, however, where it makes sense to implement lights-out automation in the machine shop: (CLICK TO READ THE FULL ARTICLE ON AMERICAN MACHINIST)

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