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describing a machine or manufacturing process that is controlled by a computer and does not need a human to be present in order to operate or supervise it
'Imagine going home out [sic] at night while your computer keeps doing your job. That's the basic idea behind a trend in manufacturing called "lights-out machining." You punch out. The machines keep working.'Changing Gears 14th September 2011
'Currently, on trial in its own machine shop, a new approach to on-machine probing is helping Renishaw benefit from dramatically reduced set times and the confidence to run 'lights out' on even the most sophisticated parts.'www.renishaw.com April 2008
Though these days we take domestic appliances like washing machines for granted, if we were to stop a second and ponder their benefits then most people would profess a quiet satisfaction that it's possible to leave a machine to do all that scrubbing and wringing work while you enjoy 45 minutes peace. Outside of the home, machinery has revolutionized all industrial sectors and given us increasingly efficient and cost-effective manufacturing processes, which now require only a fraction of the human input they once did. But what if we could not only get machines to do the work, but also just go off home, or even on holiday, and simply leave them to it, no further human contribution required? Such is the philosophy of what is now known as a lights-out approach to manufacturing.
as lights-out technology becomes more widely available, even small businesses are beginning to use it as a means of enhancing productivity
A lights-out machine is a piece of equipment which can be left to operate in a fully-automated way, which, once turned on and with the appropriate settings, requires neither human operation nor supervision, it can function completely independently. This means that potentially, any factory equipped with such machinery could be left to operate over-night, or even longer, with no need for anyone to be present. Such an establishment is therefore correspondingly described as a lights-out factory, or the term can be used adverbially and the factory said to be … running lights out.
A key player in lights-out manufacturing is Japanese robotics corporation FANUC, which has been operating lights-out factories for robots since 2001. FANUC uses robots to build robots, at plants which can be left unattended for up to 30 days. As lights-out technology becomes more widely available however, even small businesses are beginning to use it as a means of enhancing productivity. By running fully-automated shifts, companies can meet increasing demand, or save money on labour and associated costs.
Unsurprisingly, the concept of lights-out manufacturing is rather controversial. On the one hand it increases cost-effectiveness, enhancing productivity with less investment in manpower. The flip side is that it costs jobs, with factories typically only needing a small proportion of the workforce required when operated conventionally.
The term lights-out in reference to manufacturing has been around since the early eighties, often associated with the late Roger Smith, CEO of General Motors, who envisioned a fully-automated car manufacturing process which would make the company as efficient as its Japanese rivals. Unfortunately, the associated machinery didn't turn out to be up to the job, even with the lights on, and the term slipped into obscurity for many years until improved technology made lights-out manufacturing a realistic and attractive option.
The term itself is based of course on the idea that having no humans present in a place of work means 'the lights can be turned off'. In practice it's not only the lights, but the heating, air-conditioning, kettles, microwaves and other things humans might need too, making substantial savings on running costs.
Dating back to the 1950s, an earlier term for a similar concept is automatic factory, which describes a factory where raw materials enter and finished products leave with little or no human intervention.
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This article was first published on 20th August 2012.