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Lights-out factory

A lights-out factory, also known as a dark factory, operates with minimal human activity, allowing it to function in the dark with zero human intervention onsite. As companies envision the "factory of the future," autonomous production within such a factory is expected to grow across industries.

What is a lights-out factory?

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 and comprehensive and proven manufacturing operations management (MOM) software. Most automated systems can perform tasks with no human intervention. MOM software can 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 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 many product variants. Manufacturers experiencing these trends may benefit from a "lights-sparse" factory floor, where lights-out manufacturing is confined to specific operations and areas. In this way, many manufacturers could gain the advantages of autonomous production without completely transitioning to a full lights-out factory.

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Understand the benefits

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.

Reduce labor costs

Slash labor costs by minimizing human involvement, eliminating the need for extensive workforce management and associated expenses.

Automation of monotonous processes

Liberate human resources from mundane tasks, fostering increased efficiency and engagement while mitigating the likelihood of errors.

Meet changing demands with agility and flexibility

Gain unparalleled agility and flexibility by seamlessly adjusting production processes, allowing businesses to respond promptly to dynamic market needs.

Reduce error rates

Enhance operational precision by automating processes, ensuring a consistently high level of accuracy and reliability throughout production cycles.

Optimize material management efficiencies

Enhance inventory control and reduce waste through automated tracking and precise resource allocation, leading to streamlined production processes.

Accelerate product lifecycles

Accelerate innovation and time-to-market by efficiently automating various production stages, enabling rapid prototyping, testing and adaptation to changing market demands.

Quickly replicate processes to new sites

Expedite expansion and scalability by leveraging automated systems, ensuring swift and consistent implementation of production capabilities across different locations.

Requirements for lights-out manufacturing

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:

  • Advancements in robotics, automation and 5G
  • Innovative processes like 3D printing
  • Advancements in automated nondestructive inspection and quality technologies
  • Operational technology (OT) that conducts unattended production processes
  • Artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML)
  • Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies designed for industrial applications

Digital industries software is also critical to successful lights-out implementations. Manufacturing engineering software, which supports planning, designing and simulating manufacturing processes, enables manufacturers to design virtually and validate lights-sparse operations 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 a loop to match the plan.

The comprehensive digital twin is central to the industrial software that supports lights-out manufacturing. 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.

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The lights-sparse versus the lights-out factory


The executive's guide to digital manufacturing