Featured Image

Lights-Out Manufacturing

Lights-out manufacturing is receiving a fair amount of press due to its promise of complete automation. The thinking is that if some automation is good, complete automation is even better!
May 06, 2021

Lights-out manufacturing is receiving a fair amount of press due to its promise of complete automation. The thinking is that if some automation is good, complete automation is even better! However, for most manufacturers, it is more realistic to think in terms of lights-out processes rather than all-encompassing lights-out manufacturing. That said, FANUC has been operating as a lights-out factory since 2001. Approximately 50 robots are built in every 24-hour shift, and production can run unsupervised for as long as 30 days at a time. In the United States, lights-out manufacturing has slowly been transforming the plastic injection molding sector, and U.S. companies have gained global market share due to lower costs and increased quality. 

Makuta Micro Molding, for example, which specializes in micro injection molding and micro mold tooling, produces millions of zero-defect micro-to-small sized parts monthly for the medical, pharmaceutical, microfluidics, and automotive industries using lights-out manufacturing. According to the company, humans are required only to set up the machines for each production run.  

Despite the many benefits of automation – reduced labor costs, extra machining hours, lower energy requirements, higher quality output, fewer worker accidents – fully automating a plant is only cost effective for a large production volume over a long period of time. This is because designing a lights-out manufacturing process is a complex, resource-intensive process which requires detailed upfront planning in process development and validation as well as the setup and management of probing routines, robots and grippers, remote monitoring systems, and machine and tool maintenance.  

Vertical vs. Horizontal Machining Centers 

Although any CNC machine tool can be automated, horizontal machining centers (HMC) are easier to automate than vertical machining centers (VMC). Automating a VMC is more challenging because it requires a robot to load and unload parts, a conveyor to move raw material in and machined parts out, an automated pallet system, and an effective way to remove chips from the work area, such as a chip conveyor and high-pressure coolant system. A management system for cutting tools is also necessary to regularly check cutting tool inserts for breakage and wear, confirm that tools are running properly, and ensure the position of the tool table. Additionally, spindle or turret-mounted probing is necessary to validate workpiece placement and for in-process measurement. 

Each machine must have several extra tool stations. Fortunately, most machine builders today provide options for massive tool magazines and centralized tool storage systems. This makes it easy for CNC machine programmers to call up replacement cutting tools at predetermined intervals or when the probing system indicates there is a problem. 

Remote monitoring sensors and software are obviously critical in case something goes wrong. If production cannot be stopped quickly, there can be significant damage to machines and thousands of dollars’ worth of scrap parts.  

In a lights-out manufacturing operation, workers are still required to manage the facility, plan production to meet demand quotas, and program equipment. It is also very likely that additional skilled workers will need to be hired as production increases through fully automated processes.  

PicturePicture
Author
Gail McGrew
Writer
Recent technology News
We are excited to welcome Silicon Valley Robotics (SVR) into the AMT community. Andra Keay, the managing director and founder of the non-profit robotics organization, has joined AMT as vice president of Global Robotics.
Collaborative robots (cobots) aren’t superheroes, but they are rescuing manufacturers of all sizes from the grip of a crippling labor shortage. Their ease of use and flexibility to take on many tasks are increasing their popularity.
We’ve seen an exponential growth in investments into robotics companies formed in the last 10 years, and every indicator suggests that this is just the start. There’s a growing demand for robotics and automation in the United States.
Robot capabilities are accelerating at a record pace. Get a grip on their unprecedented leap in capabilities by leading national robot expert Andra Keay, managing director of Silicon Valley Robotics, at AMT’s 2022 MFG Meeting, April 27-30, in Florida.
What funding data says about the future for robotics, additive manufacturing, and the software tying it all together.
Similar News
undefined
Intelligence
By Stephen LaMarca | Jul 01, 2022

Amazon’s new AMR. Rocket factory in-a-box. Advanced additive auto parts. Artificial automation. Record-breaking Goodwood hillclimb.

5 min
undefined
Smartforce
By Kathy Keyes Webster | Jun 14, 2022

This spring, advanced manufacturing companies and associated partners in the IMTS community are sponsoring events to promote the great careers in manufacturing technology to high school students and their teachers.

7 min
undefined
Intelligence
By Kristin Bartschi | Jun 27, 2022

AMT is working with Sompo International, a global provider of property and casualty insurance. Through this alliance, Sompo International will share their thought leadership through articles in AMT media and speaking slots at AMT member events.

3 min