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Turning the Lights Off on OEMs

Posted May 06, 2015 12:00 AM by HUSH

This week's blog entry will start with a joke (not the usual sarcasm or anecdote). It goes like this:

A pastor, a doctor and an engineer are playing golf, but are becoming agitated because they're playing behind a particularly slow set of golfers. The pastor notices a groundskeeper approaching on a lawn tractor.

"Let's have a word with him," says the pastor. "Excuse me, do you know why the group ahead of us is taking so long?"

The groundskeeper explains that the golfers ahead are a group of firefighters that had lost their sight battling a fire at the course clubhouse years before. The firefighters are now allowed to play for free whenever they want. The pastor, doctor and engineer each pause and reflect for a moment.

"I'm going to say a special prayer for them," says the pastor.

"I'll talk to an ophthalmologist at the hospital and see if he can help," says the doctor.

The engineer is silent for a few seconds longer--until, "Why can't these guys play at night?"


Engineers are renowned for their problem solving, practicality and straightforwardness. In the instance above, this is what separates the engineer from his fellow sportsman. Each applies his discipline to helping the firefighters, but it's only the engineer who finds a solution.

It's easy to see how this sort of mindset also birthed lights-out manufacturing. Robots don't need light, just sensors. They also don't need food, air, water, breaks, sick time, encouragement, raises, etc. About 30 years ago, GM tried to implement lights-out manufacturing only to find its robots were painting themselves, not cars.

From a technological standpoint, 30 years can change everything (like from brick-sized cell phones to smartphones geniusphones). Today, lights-out automation technology can be integrated into nearly any operation. FANUC Corp. of Japan is an OEM with a lights-out factory that builds 50 other lights-out robots a day. In fact, FANUC runs for a month at a time before humans enter the factory, and only to remove and ship finished products. FUNAC has been doing this since 2001, yet more widespread adoption of lights-out manufacturing has been sparse. One source believes that manufacturing automations has penetrated less than 10% of the available market.

Some of the benefits are obvious, such as no labor costs, reduced facilities costs, improved efficiency and almost zero downtime. Other benefits, such as surging production during cheaper energy periods, or producing components of differing complexity during different shifts, are less obvious. Despite this, lights-out manufacturing remains a fringe technology for many industries.

Could it be a cultural hesitancy to begin replacing factory workers with robots en masse? (Could you imagine the negative PR and outcry from unions?) Could it be the technology is still overpriced for all but the largest of OEMs? (There has been some recent movement on the price and availability forefront.) Perhaps it's the potential for machine break-down while unattended that scares manufacturers off.

It's tough to tell if we're at the dawn of dark manufacturing, or if the benefits of lights-out factories will never reach enlightenment.


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Join Date: Jul 2014
Location: Savannah, GA. The post office decided to change my address again.
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Re: Turning the lights off on OEMs

05/06/2015 10:31 PM

I happen to prefer Fanuc automation.......................however lights out works to kill good paying jobs and eliminates skilled workers whom the manufacturing industry is desperately searching for now a days.

The reason the baby boomers are leaving the scene in droves is not because they want too, it's because the industry is so fickle you have no security in your job.....I mean that I have heard guys that are 3 months from retirement that get canned for some inane reason and are not allowed to collect the pension they have been busting their butt for.................I mean really why subject yourself to that?

Then on the other side everyone has been told to ignore those lowly blue collar jobs...go to college and make your Burger King.

Never seem more learned than the people you are with. Wear your learning like a pocket watch and keep it hidden. Do not pull it out to count the hours, but give the time when you are asked.(Lord Chesterfield)
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Re: Turning the lights off on OEMs

05/07/2015 2:55 AM

I have been in product development functions for years and the biggest roadblock to automating parts of the job does not come from fear for unions or potential downtime issues.

The real road block is knowledge and daring to think different at the start of a project.

The amount of engineers capable of setting up workerless production is limited: most real problems in assembly processes are solved by those who do job, if it needs to be automated the engineers need to solve it upfront.

"Here we are now, entertain us"

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Re: Turning the lights off on OEMs

05/07/2015 5:32 AM

"In fact, FANUC runs for a month at a time before humans enter the factory, and only to remove and ship finished product." GARBAGE So FANUC who operate a just-in time policy for raw materials and component parts leave 30 days x 50 robots/day, 1500 robots in work in progress before anybody bothers to transfer them into stock. At a manufactured cost of €15000 per robot that equates to €22.5million, or $60million, or ¥3billion. As there are no people feeding raw materials and components into the front end, the parts must just magically appear, so maybe it does not cost €15000 to construct a robot, and my first point is wrong. (If they are not fed into the production line what do they do with all those bought in components?) Apparently the robots in their own factory and all the other equipment that transfers sub assemblies from one robot to the next do not have the same breakdown statistics as the robots they sell, so there is no army of maintenance technicians running around keeping the system working, and no army of programmers tweaking the software to gain productivity improvements. Somebody is telling fibs.

On a more serious note. I too have been in the automation industry for a long time and I agree that a major inhibitor to the implementation of automation is the perception by management (in a lot of cases quite justifiably held) that their existing staff would not be capable of maintaining the equipment, and if they put in training their expensively trained staff would leave for pastures new. The idea of paying the guys who keep the system running as much as those who made the decision to buy it just does not occur to them.

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Re: Turning the lights off on OEMs

05/07/2015 9:46 AM

I just heard that joke over the weekend! Were you at the same party?

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Re: Turning the Lights Off on OEMs

05/07/2015 11:58 AM

jhhassociates I agree with the "GARBAGE" statement. I have been in the automation business for 40 yrs and have worked extensively with Faunc products and many others. They ALL breakdown and 30 days is pushing the envelope for anything other than a "pick and place" robot. BTW, they all require routine maintenance and the harder they are pushed, the more maintenance they need. Take your car as an example: If you drive normal, accelerating reasonably staying around the speed limits, stopping gradually, and change your oil, coolants, belts, and hoses, a car will last maybe 300,000 miles. But, if you floorboard it to get up to excess speeds and slam on the brakes, the wear is tremendously accelerated. Don't do the maintenance, and its junk in less than 100,000 miles.

I've heard machinists called "Button Pushers" and "Trained Monkeys", but I can tell you a good machinist is one of the keys to a machine having a long useful life. They know the machine and understand their idiosyncrasies and limitations.

Competent maintenance personnel are key along with good training and proper tools.

Most often they are under paid, untrained, and do not have all the tools to do the work.

Personally, I work on machines worth HUNDREDS of MILLIONS of dollars for a MULTI-BILLION dollar company. I have had some good training and some bad, but almost never what it should be. I have spent a lot of personal time learning on my own and for that, I get paid less that production machinists because I am considered OVERHEAD.

I have bosses who do not understand most of the tools I (& my co-workers) need so at times outside contractors are called in to do what we could do in house.

I can advise my bosses on what is needed, but the bonuses they get impair their ability to properly equip us to do our job, not to mention their indignation of listening to someone who does the work.

Many of the contractors are less competent, but "It comes out of a different budget".

It still hurts the bottom line regardless of whose budget it comes out of.

Having also been in business, I understand budget constraints, but the waste resulting from bad management decisions is MIND BLOWING!

True "Lights OUT" manufacturing of anything complex, is still a long way off!

Bill H.
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Re: Turning the Lights Off on OEMs

05/11/2015 5:03 PM

From what I read in the article it is a bit more than "lights out", it's more like "lights off". My understanding of lights out manufacturing is that the machinists or programmers or both would have parts that can run unattended and are scheduled for night time production. Here are a few of my thoughts on lights out:

  • A part that takes many hours to machine.
  • Large amounts of stock removal.
  • Thick cuts at slow speeds.
  • Non precise parts that have large tolerances.
  • Roughing work.
  • Lower night time energy costs.
  • Take advantage of the weather and turn off the cooling / heating.
  • Part blanking.

The list is almost endless and works for a lot of companies but I don't believe that they leave the building for a month and then come collect the finished machine.

What about testing? What about a defective part that is in the stream, now they have 50 machines that need to be repaired before they can ship them. That now stops the entire line and the workers have to disassemble the finished machines and fix them.

What about quality control?

"Lights off" manufacturing may come to fruition, however you will never take the human element out of the manufacturing process completely!

Though it does seem he frequently has a Swiss Army knife or Leatherman and a roll of duct tape with him.
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