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The path to lights-out manufacturing

Published by
World Pipelines,


Shriram Ramanathan, Ph.D., Vice President and Group Director, Lux Research, USA, and contributor Miraj Mainali analyse the timeline for lights-out manufacturing processes for the oil and gas industry.

The path to lights-out manufacturing

Lights-out manufacturing is fully automated and requires no human presence, so that lights and even ventilation can be shut off, hence the term ‘lights-out’. While lights-out manufacturing sounds futuristic, the concept has been circulating for a couple of decades now. In fact, many organisations, including IBM, GE, Fanuc, and Philips, have operated several forms of lights-out factories.

Drivers for lights-out manufacturing

During the past five years, investors have shown steadily rising interest and activity in lights-out manufacturing, which we can see using Lux Research’s internal tools that analyse patents, publications, and funding. Ideas developed in the late 20th century around lights-out manufacturing are now resurgent because of current advances like advanced robotics, computer vision, industrial IoT, machine learning algorithms, and improved computing.

Similarly, funding for robotics and automation in manufacturing has also increased significantly since 2015. While most of the funding is in the form of venture capital investments in emerging startups, public companies have also raised millions in post-IPO funding. Besides technical enablement, there are non-technical factors responsible for the growing demand for lights-out manufacturing.

Operational efficiencies

Minimising operational costs

  • While robots have high upfront costs, they can be less expensive than human labour over time. The push to increase minimum wages and benefits for factory workers is also driving large corporations towards increased levels of automation.

Achieving higher efficiency

  • Unlike human workers, a robustly built robotics system can run 24/7 without the need for breaks, vacations, or shift changes.

Reducing downtime

  • Human error accounts for a large percentage of unplanned downtime in manufacturing, which can lead to millions of dollars in lost revenue. In addition to the unplanned downtime, the lack of flexible production systems and the need for manual inspection, maintenance, and repair entail planned downtime in manufacturing.

Minimising wastage for sustainability reasons

  • In addition to operational and maintenance costs, inefficiency and downtime caused by workers and inflexible manufacturing systems lead to increased material wastage and carbon footprint.

Human labour demands

Rising worker safety concerns and costs

  • Adopting worker safety measures to create a safe workplace for factory employees has several advantages, but it comes at an increased cost. While replacing some workers with robots can help save operational costs, the use of collaborative robots (cobots) requires further worker safety measures for the remaining workers. Therefore, companies are interested in full automation.

Labour shortages

  • Some industries, such as oil and gas, have been suffering from significant labour shortages caused by both an ageing workforce and the lack of fresh graduates interested in working in the field. Even for other industries, knowledge transfer and worker training for new hires are difficult and expensive.

COVID-19

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented driver for several tech innovations, including automation. Companies like Hitachi, Mitutoyo, and Omron have said COVID-19 motivated their investments and M&A initiatives in automation since 2020.

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