Beyond COVID-19: Why Lights-Out Manufacturing is a Game-Changer

COVID-19 is changing our world. Social distancing has become the mantra for 2020. Many companies have been forced to transition to working from home. 

Of course, that transition is easier in some industries than others. How are manufacturers, who are highly reliant on the presence of human capital on-site, coping with the situation? Unfortunately, many production facilities have ceased functioning.

The Way Forward: Lights-Out Manufacturing

For many manufacturers, all they can do is weather the current storm. But in the future, how can we ensure business continuity in such dire situations? 

This pertinent question has brought forward the relevance of lights-out manufacturing or dark factories. It’s a concept introduced by Philip K. Dick in his short story “Autofac" published way back in 1955; it refers to the methodology of running a factory without any human workers. In a dark factory, intelligent machines run a production unit with no human intervention. 

Dark Factories in Practice

Autonomous factories may sound like part of some dystopian sci-fi vision, but they are already a reality for many globally recognized manufacturers. 

Take the case of Philips, which is running a manufacturing unit in the Netherlands to produce electric razors. Every year, the automated factory produces 15 million electric razors. Who’s running the show? 128 robots. The only phase where they seek human intervention is during quality assurance, where 9 humans are employed.   

Amazon’s warehouse network is powered by robots that masterfully coordinate product shipments to fulfill the need for fast delivery to its customers. Tesla’s factory, which is a robotic assembly line, is achieving increased manufacturing speed to cut down costs. The list goes on.

How to Enable Lights-Out Manufacturing 

The Role of Robots

Initially, manufacturers used robots to focus on work that was dull, dirty, and dangerous — the “3 D” tasks. Now, the focus is on using entirely autonomous machines. 

Does that mean that a human has no role in a dark factory? Not necessarily: humans are required in situations demanding problem-solving skills and judgement-based thinking. But certainly, humans should not be the labor behind high volumes of repetitive tasks, an effort better suited to robots. 

Successful lights-out manufacturing depends on collaboration. On the one hand is the mental dexterity of humans; on the other, the reliability of machines. Use these ingredients in the right combination to achieve efficient, collaborative robots: cobots.   

The Technology in Dark Factories

At the core of the automated factory unit is digital twin technology, introduced by Michael Grieves at the University of Michigan back in 2002. 

Digital twin refers to the replication of physical production systems in a digital model. It is a virtual representation of the real world using data collection techniques, in which the digital twin replicates the actual factory layout and process flow. Thus, digital twins facilitate conceptualizing the manufacturing process.

This is powerful because manipulations and examinations are easy to do in a digital twin. They generate practical, simulated data in a number of what-if conditions. In turn, these predict changes needed in the physical system.

The Internet of Things (IoT) has opened the possibility of making digital twin technology cost-effective. Machines and equipment used in the factory are sources of data that can be unlocked using IoT connectivity. With IoT, manufacturing processes are strengthened by sensors that generate real-time data on operations and maintenance activities.  

Along with IoT, the integration of technologies such as advanced data analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and augmented reality have crucial roles to play in achieving advanced maturity in a digital twin, which is essential to run a dark factory. An intelligent digital twin with unsupervised machine learning capabilities can attain an advanced level of sophistication and achieve significant autonomy.  

The Options for Human Workers

Despite this technological promise, an obvious question remains: where would all the humans go? The reality is that a dark factory does not mean that everything is dark in terms of lost employment. 

Technological unemployment is a concept much examined by John Maynard Keynes. As he wrote in his still-relevant article, “Economic possibilities for our grandchildren,” this is only a temporary phase of maladjustment. Technological changes lead to next-generation machines, lower prices and new investments. All these result in new labor opportunities. 

The workforce displaced in the short-term can acquire desirable skills for the newly created types of jobs. New machines will require plenty of care for their software, mechanical and electrical components. Humans will need to manage and innovate the workflows of these machines in the context of the task at hand. 

Certainly, labor is displaced in those industries that introduce new technology and transition to dark factories. But at the same time, new labor is created in the industries that produce the new machinery. Logically, the talent demand for the new technology is filled by those who are skilled and experienced, which translates to a shift in better-paying jobs.    

Lights-Out Manufacturing is No Longer Optional

We now have technology powerful enough to realize the potential of dark factories. Innovative manufacturers simply have to find the right combination of the right tools:

  1. Cobots; effectively parsing tasks between humans and robots
  2. Digital twin technology; modeling the manufacturing process
  3. IoT; using equipment as sources of data
  4. AI; incorporating machine learning and analytics to enable autonomy

Recent events have transformed dark factories from a possibility to an imperative. COVID-19 has made societies realize the urgent need for automated factories. In fact, we have reached a point where factories without a single human on premises is an unquestionable necessity for our own survival. 

As Victor Hugo once said, "no power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come." Indeed, lights-out manufacturing is an inevitable technological change whose time has arrived.

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