In the 1955 short story “Autofac,” Philip K. Dick envisioned a world dominated by self-replicating robots that work incessantly, eventually depleting the planet’s resources. Autofac is already happening in some manufacturing facilities, where robots work 24/7 with little to no human supervision.
Like the autofacs in Dick’s story, state-of-the-art robots at several plants can now work in total autonomy for extended periods of time, a production mode known as lights-out manufacturing. Although expensive to set up, lights-out manufacturing comes with advantages, especially increased profitability.
Generally, robots work more slowly but more consistently than humans. They don’t get tired, bored, distracted or sick. Lights-out manufacturing means higher productivity as well as cost savings. Human necessities such as lighting, heating, ventilation and air conditioning are eliminated. Robots can also operate in significantly smaller work cells, further reducing costs. Robots represent the perfect workforce in dangerous industrial environments.
Already a Reality
Japanese robotics company FANUC has operated lights-out since 2001. As in a Dick novel, the robots at the FANUC plant in Oshino, Japan self-replicate at a rate of 50 per 24-hour shift, running unsupervised for up to 30 days. The robots take care of all aspects of production of other robots, from parts delivery to assembly, testing, packaging and shipment.
Lights-out production is also used to produce consumer goods. For example, Philips runs an almost completely automated factory in the Netherlands, where 128 robots with fine dexterity produce about 15 million electric razors a year. The only step in which human workers are involved is quality assurance. However, thanks to machine vision, even this phase might soon be fully automated.
Currently, very few factories run exclusively lights-out. However, industrial robots are allowing more plants to add lights-out shifts, typically at night and on weekends and holidays.
Additionally, thanks to new machine-as-a-service (MaaS) subscription models, companies of any size and budget can afford it. In this system, manufacturers rent robots by the hour and only pay for the time they work.
The Human Factor
Far from making human workers redundant, however, lights-out manufacturing could help manufacturers retain employees by allocating them to more rewarding positions. While robots focus on repetitive, monotonous or hazardous tasks, their human counterparts can be requalified and assigned to more complex tasks that require judgment-based thinking and problem-solving skills. For this reason, it’s important that employers invest in educating and training their workforce, and that employees know this education helps them remain competitive.
The increased profitability that results from lights-out shifts is also helping companies keep their production in house. In this way, manufacturers can avoid the logistical and ethical problems related to delocalization, while their employees can keep their jobs.
Finally, highly qualified workers will always be needed to develop, set up and oversee the machines, as well as to perform necessary maintenance work.
EU Automation is a global supplier of new, reconditioned and obsolete parts that get industrial machines back up and running. Its U.S. offices are in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.