Lights out, machines on: The new wave of factory automation

Being afraid of new technology can limit the benefits automated lights out manufacturing can offer, writes Annie Dang.

A growing number of companies have gone down the path of becoming an automated lights out manufacturer, shutting down their doors at the end of the day and returning the following morning to find machines have produced an entire shift of products, with no (or limited) human intervention. 

For these companies the addition of an automated third shift means more orders can be accepted and produced through present production systems, alleviating growing pressures and remain competitive.

Andrew Bentrup, MD of automation specialist Maxitec, the most immediate advantages of automated manufacturing is the ability to plan production more effectively, and further in advance. The other, he says, is securing larger and more competitive contracts,

"Automated lights out manufacturing gives companies greater scope to bid for bigger and more demanding contracts, as well as the confidence to not only win these contracts but also deliver well on time and on budget," Bentrup told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

He says any company that takes steps towards becoming an automated lights out manufacturer, considered to be at the top level of world’s best practice, is more likely to be held in high esteem among industry. This he adds will place them in a better position to qualify for major local and international contracts.

However such prestige does not come without costs. "No investment of this type is ever going to be cheap," Bentrup advises. 

Thorough planning, including getting as complete costs analysis, will help manufacturers monitor costs and keep it under control. Most importantly it will provide a clear indication of capital outlay needed to equip the plant with the technology, the costs required to operate and the expected return on investment in full automation.


Multi-stage installation

Air conditioning manufacturer Temperzone is in the initial phase of a multi-stage technology upgrade to become a completely automated lights out manufacturing plant. 

The company is consolidating its growth strategy on automated Finn-Power technology; a move which management expects will swell its employee base and dispel any manufacturing myths that high-tech software driven fabrication machinery results in downsizing.  

"Shop floor staff are finding that with almost all the labour component taken out of the equation, they can concentrate on core activities, return far better productivity and enjoy much safer workspace," said Bentrup, whose company did the Temperzone installation.

The Finn-Power setup, with the Night Train FMS automated handling system soon to be at the hub, is said to ensure Temperzone will eventually process sheet metal in more economical coiled form rather than individual sheets. 

The adoption has so far yielded positive results; the company is now moving into larger premises to expand its work intake and maximise its investment in machinery and personnel.

Bentrup says the key to successful lights out manufacturing is vision.

"Business owners need to be innovative and forwarding thinking in their use and adoption of new technology. 

"Business owners have to learn to let go of long-standing labour-intensive processes and understand a lot of trust has to be placed in modern technology and the power it delivers to the industry," he said.

"The owner has to see the company in a position where it, if the opportunity arises, can supply not only its own national market but also step into the international fold," Bentrup said.

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