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Questions and Answers About "Lights Out" Manufacturing

Lights-out manufacturing is within reach for CNC machine shops with the help of cobots for machine tending. Our blog explains how to get started.

You've probably heard or read about lights-out manufacturing. Often, the term is accompanied by a picture of a bustling factory floor with row upon row of large robots and assembly line conveyor belts without a human being in sight. But is this fully-automated set up realistic for small to medium-size CNC machine shops?

In this blog, we’ll answer some common questions about lights-out manufacturing so you can make an informed choice.

What is Lights-out Manufacturing?

The concept of “lights-out manufacturing” involves fully automated systems of production equipment and robots that operate continuously over a period of several hours, without human interaction or oversight, to accomplish all manufacturing tasks.

Of course, it’s not necessary to turn the lights out literally, though it is technically possible. This is because those doing the work, the machines, don’t need to see what they’re doing the way people do. Each movement and task (e.g., speed, angles of cuts, timing, placement of blanks) is pre-programmed and recalled from computer memory.

This approach to manufacturing is flexible. It can be used with a single production line or an entire facility. Shops can rely on fully automated production as their primary method of operations or use it selectively to boost production between shifts or to add after hours shifts on an as-needed basis.

And perhaps best of all, because machinists are not involved in these extra shifts, there are no schedules to coordinate, no overtime to pay, and no extra workers to hire – but you still get the expanded productivity you need, when you need it.

What Technology Allows CNC Machine Shops to Get in on Lights-out Manufacturing?

Implementing automation into your production can seem daunting at first, but remember that even the most complex manufacturing processes can be broken down into a series of steps or tasks. Identifying the individual points where production slows down, workers get distracted, or errors occur is the key to knowing where automation and robotics will have the biggest impact.

For many CNC machine shops, tending the CNC machine equipment represents that critical set of tasks. Workers must load parts correctly each time, wait for the cycle to run, switch out parts, and keep the process moving swiftly. It’s repetitive work that can be hard for people to maintain over an entire shift. And if the work is dull or the ergonomics are poor, that makes it even more challenging.

Collaborative robots, or cobots, like the OB7 from Productive Robotics, allow you to get more from your CNC machines. Cobot technology is uniquely suited to machine tending for these reasons:

  • Multi-axis movement. Each axis or joint on a robot arm helps it maneuver in its environment and does work. While many cobots have six axes, the OB7 has seven. This extra joint makes it more like a human arm that can reach around obstacles. That means you can mount it where it fits best at a workstation (i.e., not necessarily directly in front of the CNC machine) and it can still reach where it needs to so doesn’t block access to the machine.

  • Ease of installation and set-up. Cobots don’t require complicated coding or programming to operate. Simply “teach” the arm what to do by moving it through the motions and storing the directions with an intuitive drag-and-drop interface. Operators can easily refine or revise the directions or teach the arm a new job.

  • Safety around humans. Cobots have built-in power- and force-limiting functionality, which means they can be set to move at slow rates of speed when humans are nearby (sometimes called collaborative mode). They can also be set to move faster when working unattended. Most also include sensors that can detect the presence of a person or limb and slow or stop automatically to avoid collision. These safety features are what make them truly collaborative and safe during regular, staffed operations as well as in unattended, lights-out settings.

  • Innate repeatability. By its very nature, once a cobot is “taught” what to do, it will recall the work instructions and carry them out precisely and consistently until told to stop. Unlike a human worker, cobots maintain steady productivity with no breaks, distractions, meal periods, or days off.

What are the Benefits of Lights-out Production?

There are many benefits associated with lights-out production, even for smaller CNC machine shops, including:

  • Keeping the CNC machine spindle turning. The more uptime your CNC machines get, the more product you can produce. The ability to run machines unattended helps you get ahead, catch up, and take on new opportunities.

  • Solving problems that accompany unfilled positions. If you’re feeling the effects of the workforce shortage in the manufacturing sector, a cobot can help you get the work done at a fraction of the cost.

  • Gaining flexibility within your production. With a cobot, you can boost production by changing between different jobs. Instead of having the cobot fixed to one task, you can easily teach it a new job or roll it to a different workstation.

  • Upskill existing workers for more complex or higher-level tasks. With a cobot, you can hand off the mundane, repetitive work and let the robot take over these tasks. In doing so, employees can now oversee cobots tending CNC machines, learn CNC programming, and work on other processes within the production.

  • Improving quality issues due to misloading or other errors. A cobot repeats the same task exactly the same way, so it greatly reduces errors in loading, transferring parts, etc. With a cobot, scraps are reduced and quality is improved.

Where Do We Start?

Productive Robotics has the expertise to help you select the right cobot for your CNC application. Mills, lathes, laser or plasma cutters, EDM machines and more benefit from automated machine tending.

Each member of the OB7 family of cobots is easy to install and set up yourself, and our technical support department is always on hand to help you work through specifics of your application.

There’s only one more question - are you ready to get more from your CNC machines? Contact us to schedule a demo or discuss your application.

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