The manufacturing industry has always been defined by aggressive competition and the speed of its processes.
The next industrial revolution, tipped as Industry 4.0, is the next phase in the digitization of the manufacturing sector. McKinsey has highlighted four disruptions which will drive this: the rise in data volumes, computational power, and connectivity; the emergence of analytics and business-intelligence capabilities; new forms of human-machine interaction and improvements in transferring digital instructions to the physical world.
The promise of ‘fully automated’
Before we get into future gazing, it’s no secret that we’ve been promised an automation takeover since the early 2000s, which has yet to be a reality for many small and mid-sized manufacturers.
Despite the time- and cost-savings in large manufacturing plants, particularly in Japan, we don’t see “fully automated” taking over the industry as quickly as some predict.
However, we should acknowledge great strides in the industry where automation has been pioneered on a large scale to great effect.
What is ‘lights-out’ manufacturing?
The term is used for a manufacturing process where factories run fully autonomously, without any human intervention; a “place where raw materials enter and finished products leave.” These factories can be run with the lights off. And some of them actually do.
One of the largest companies using lights-out manufacturing is Japan’s FANUC (Factory Automatic Numerical Control) who specialize in robotics manufacturing. What they produce are robots that build other robots without the presence of humans. FANUC vice president, Gary Zywiol, was quoted as saying, “Not only is it lights out, we turn off the air conditioning and heat, too.”
Lights-out manufacturing in action
Take a look at the large Siemens’ plant for industrial controls in Amberg, Baveria, considered their most innovative, cutting-edge manufacturing site in the world. It’s here that products and machines communicate with each other. Yes, they talk. It’s not cocktail party banter, but there is dialog and a lot of it. So much so, that it’s the products themselves that control their production.
What the operation has shown is that in the same sized space with the just about the same sized number of workers, Siemens increased its production 8-fold over the last 2 decades. In other words, as a result of automation, humans and machines are effectively eight times more productive today than they were 20 years ago.
Despite these numbers, lights-out has not really taken off.
The human resistance to automation
According to Bloomberg, mega players like Toyota, often called the ‘god’ of automated manufacturing, are going against the grain. They’re taking steps to put humans (yes, folks like us) back on the shop floor, replacing of machines in plants across Japan. “Toyota views their people who work in a plant as craftsmen who need to continue to refine their art and skill level,” says Dr. Jeff Liker, who’s been studying Toyota’s success for eons. A growing trend across the industry, many automated companies now want their employees to develop new skills and figure out ways to improve production lines and processes.
Streamlining machines with a ‘human’ touch
US manufactures are beginning to realize that the success of their ‘lights-out’ Japanese counterparts has not been down to machine alone. Companies like FANUC and others did not skyrocket because of their new-fangled automation, but because of their lean manufacturing practices.
But lean manufacturing cannot work without people. Humans are a vital cog in identifying waste to eliminate waste within a manufacturing system, as well as waste created from system overloads and from imbalanced workloads.
Evolution or revolution? Our bottom line
Manufacturing revolutions never ever happen overnight. Even though we can expect to see an influx of automated factories powered by flicking a switch or swiping a screen, it will be years until ready-to-ride motorcycles and self-whipping electric mixers…
bounce off a conveyor belt … right into a box … in a dark factory … in the middle of the night.
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