When and where lights-out automation makes sense

Automation and effectively using enterprise systems help manufacturers succeed in the post-COVID manufacturing era

By Paul Denmark September 16, 2021
Courtesy: Ultrai-Consult

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, many companies slowed or shut down operations with the expec­tation that normalcy would resume within a matter of weeks. However, as the months wore on, it became painfully obvious that it would be a long time before things returned to normal.

As COVID-19 capacity constraints and social distancing requirements entered the manufactur­ing arena, talk of manufacturers transitioning to lights-out automation renewed with vigor. Factors often cited as reasons for transitioning to lights-out manufacturing include lighting, heating and cool­ing savings, with the argument being that robotics and other machines can run in the dark and under a wide range of temperatures. But, given the cost of transitioning, a lights-out program will not pay for itself in less than a couple of years. The return on investment is just not there, except over a long period of time.

Another argument for the introduction of lights-out automation is improved capacity, for example, saving space with auto-retrieval. To date, most auto­mated retrieval systems have remained prohibitively expensive and have proven to be problematic unless used under highly predictable and repetitive opera­tions — and still requiring skilled human operators and other workers to fulfill the kinds of tasks that require adjustments and on-the-fly thinking. Given that people will be part of the manufacturing process for the foreseeable future, reducing space, at this time, is counter to COVID-19 compliance and physical distancing requirements.

Three smart SMB scenarios

In general, a large-scale lights-out automation strategy can make sense for large manufacturers, but for small-to-medium-businesses (SMBs), which make up the bulk of manufacturing in the U.S., it is far too costly. There are three specific scenarios, however, where it makes sense to implement lights-out automation for the SMB manufacturer:

1. Strategizing around skilled labor shortages

According to the World Economic Forum, 2020 was the year that automation sgained additional impe­tus in the market place. This is due to the ongoing and widening skilled labor shortage in manufactur­ing. This is one of the biggest factors in deciding to automate, to address the need for truly advanced automation that can fill highly specialized, if still repetitive, tasks.

2. Supporting high-volume produc­tion operations

Scenarios where production volumes are so high that a human workforce could not achieve the quota require automation. This could be the case when mil­lions of the same or a few parts are required or in which many thousands of tests are required. Robotic work cells are an example of a hybrid lights-out auto­mation model relegated to a specific area or plant process, and some manufacturers are looking at a shift-model, where the night shift is automated with a robot workforce to supplement the human workforce that arrives in the morning.

3. Curbing contamination

Scenarios where automation has already been in place for years include the manufacture of films, semicon­ductors and pharmaceuticals, among others. These all are areas where high quality and even lights-out conditions are required to minimize the introduc­tion of various types of contaminants and/or where production environments use hazardous materials that introduce risks to human safety.

The key drivers for lights-out automation are the need for skilled labor, support for high-volume pro­duction and quality or contamination prevention.

One manufacturer of engineered-to-order lab automation equipment is a good example of why and when lights-out automation makes sense for an SMB manufacturer. Its automated testing lab, powered by a robust enterprise resources planning (ERP) system, is being put to critical use in COVID- 19 research and testing. The company developed highly flexible, modular COVID-19 research and testing robotic solutions that allow scientists to scale production.

Alternate automation strategies

Manufacturers should move now, as lockdowns are lifted, to put in place technology-enabled strategies, such as implementing social distancing and related work safety practices. This strategy, combined with virtual inspections and operations meetings where someone on site provides a virtual tour from the conference room and across the production floor, has enabled some production to move forward. A virtual operations tour also has the added benefit of being recordable for playback and extended reviews.

Longer term, introducing automation can pay dividends, and it starts with accurate data, which is enabled via ERP solutions. From remote monitoring capabilities that enable access to real-time data, to drag-and-drop job scheduling that eliminates costly downtime and assists with planning preventative maintenance, as well as identifying the reasons for machine downtime, automation augmented with ERP is a winning solution that provides value to both large and small manufacturers.

Manufacturers are returning to work with safer-at-work policies that are likely to be part of new normal operations, which can go a long way to pre­pare the industry for potential new shutdowns and future pandemics. Now is the time to start long-term planning. Strategic manufacturers will move forward with automation and effectively using ERP, machine learning and related technologies to succeed in the post-COVID manufacturing era.

Author Bio: Paul Denmark is a senior consultant at Ultra Consultants with specific industry expertise in medical device, aerospace and defense, oil and gas, and consumer electronics, as well as pressure sensitive adhesive industries. He has extensive experience offering end-to-end supply chain reengineering with crossfunctional integration among supply chain planning, purchasing, distribution, IT engineering, manufacturing and finance.