The Industrial Vision for 2025: Lights Out Factories

Envisioning a world where lights out automation is a reality, will be the manifestation of a dream long being dreamed for many years. The industrial revolution evolved as a desire of man to master his elements and allow himself to manufacture products that are scales of magnitude above what the physical body can produce from initial process steps like mixing ingredients, filtering them and generating a resultant output. We’ve come a long way from the early stages of manufacturing, to a time when robots, cobots and even an entire self autonomous mechanism can operate for up to two months without needing any human intervention.

What we all really want, is to push a button, and let machines work unattended. The whole premise of working for money, will be replaced by machines working for us and generating the capital for our business, without much intervention once they are programmed. While lights out facilities seem to be emerging in the East, it will only be a matter of time before they start becoming centre stage in the West. Every society wants to ensure that their manufacturing facilities are at the lowest cost, or else they’ll easily be wiped out by imports.

At this point in time, there are manufacturing facilities that have the ability to operate all night without having to be attended to by humans. The following tools have been enhancing this capability:

Artificial Intelligence: With deep learning mechanisms, there are machines that are able to utilize learning mechanisms like neural networks in order to study systems and optimize them.

Automated Guided Vehicles: These machines can operate autonomously once programmed. On  an assembly line for instance, they can do things like manufacture cars of the same quality, without tiring.

Data Analytics: This capability is one that will enable individuals to look at data pools and predict trends. Via data mining, the future can easily be seen and acted upon.

Predictive Maintenance: This is the ability of an organization to see the health of its machinery and forecast when the machines will be ready for servicing.

Programmable Logic Controllers: These are part of advanced process control systems. It will be important to transition from legacy systems to more advanced systems for more than one reason, particularly technological support and maintenance.

Vision Systems: These will make quality assessment easier in the future. With the ability to let a machine know what flaws to look for in a part, it can do things like X-ray the part and identify the integrity of the part before it is shipped to a customer.

With these and other technologies available on hand, we are well on our way to “lights out” as a means of our industrial existence. With all of these elements, human hands will only be needed on the deck of a plant when the plant is being built, and when the plant is being maintained. The facility will be able to operate 24 hours per day, seven days a week. While human rights require that occasions like holidays be observed, it is not going to be the requirement for robots.

If you’ve watched events like the launching of rockets for instance, you’ll notice that at a particular time like T minus one minute, the rocket itself is in auto. The rocket lifts off, regulates its own engines, and goes through its own sequence of phase separations before the final capsule is deployed. The capsule is then able to fly itself to places like the International Space Station with its in built geolocator systems. It finds the right orbit, arrives at the space station, and utilizes a vision system to dock itself to the station.

Much like a factory of the future, the vision for such autonomous systems is that the equipment will be able to monitor and run itself. Human beings on particular space craft today, don’t really need to touch anything. With the presence of controllers in places like Mission Control in Houston, the flight engineers pretty much just are there in case the automatic systems don’t operate, or to be passengers to the space station where they will then operate and optimize that unit. The humans in the future plants will be able to do a manual override where possible, and guide the system to normalcy.

What is the driving force for Lights-Out Automation?

In assembly applications, there’s still room for improvement. While in places like Japan, there are actual lights out facilities, in the western world, there’s still room for improvement. The transition of facilities from manned facilities to all automated facilities is one that does require planning. For the hundreds of thousands of individuals who are at risk of unemployment because of robots, they have to be re-trained to professions that will be independent of their current skills.

Somehow, there’s always been a notion that machines are to be feared by this subset of individuals. At this current stage, many truck drivers are currently on the verge of such a cutting edge change. Management sees machines as more reliable, controllable and efficient than humans. This mindset, however, will always exist as long as there’s a technological advancement.

Will It Be Man vs. Machine?

Change is something that will always be. Full automation, without human intelligence is not yet possible. The vibrant future will require the fusion of both the elements. Lights out facilities without human elements can operate for about two months now without needing to be maintained. With a thorough understanding the appropriate balance can be determined.