For as long as there has been a future, people have been envisioning what it could look like. From flying cars that zip around sky cities to handheld devices that teleport you away just as fast as you can say “beam me up, Scottie!”, we have always had lofty goals in mind. But, now we live in a world that looks remarkably like something out of a sci-fi film, and nothing exemplifies just how far we’ve come quite like the ‘Lights-Out’ Factory. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a factory that employs robots rather than humans, humming along in perfect synchronization, to the extent that one could simply turn the lights off without affecting the march of progress in the slightest. To break it down a little further, here is a helpful summary from PWC of what a lights-out factory is (and isn’t):
Image credit: Göran Martinsson, PWC
The methodology behind these windowless factory walls is called ‘lights-out’ manufacturing; wherein mass-produced goods are assembled autonomously by an intricate system of intelligent machines with little-to-no human intervention. The concept has been noted in publication since 1955 when the short story ‘Autofac’ described a system of self-replicating machines. Today, while truly autonomous factories (those that are capable of running indefinitely without human maintenance) are still a few years off from reality, some of the current iterations are remarkably close.
In the Netherlands, Philips is using lights-out manufacturing to produce electric razors with a team of 128 robots and just nine human quality assurance workers. Meanwhile, the Fanuc Corporation in Japan is employing large fleets of robots and a handful of experts to fulfill a myriad of end-to-end manufacturing processes, such as automobile assembly and painting, pharmaceutical sorting and packaging, and food preparation. Even Elon Musk has spent the last few years publicly hyping his ‘Alien Dreadnought’ factory, which would ostensibly produce cars at ‘post-human’ speeds as soon as Summer 2018 (although, considering that deadline is here, he has recently acquiesced to being somewhat overly-optimistic in those projections).
Machines work tirelessly to mass-produce automobiles at the Fanuc headquarters just outside Tokyo, Japan
As our technological capability grows, so does our collective imagination for its possible use cases. Industries across the map are waking up to the potential of lights-out manufacturing, and they have more in mind than just decreased labor costs. The Upstream O&G sector, for instance, is wrought with safety concerns, reporting numerous and often gruesome oilfield wellsite injuries every year. The Houston Chronicle found that in a single year, 79 workers lost limbs, 82 were crushed, 92 suffered burns, and 675 broke bones in oil industry work accidents. That same year, more than 65 people died at oil and gas industry worksites, a 60 percent increase in on-the-job fatalities from the previous year.
Heavy equipment failures, well blowouts, truck and vehicle accidents, or even simply slipping and falling are all potential hazards on the job. By strategically swapping in machines at the most danger-prone areas of the production chain, production companies are able to decrease the number of worksite injuries, and by proxy allow humans to get out of the danger zone. This, in turn, allows us to get back to doing what humans do best: coming up with new ideas and solving problems in creative ways that machines are unable to grasp.
To some, this may seem like the first signs of the robot coup to usurp all the jobs from mankind, but many others see this as an opportunity to flourish. By constructing a new stage over the old one, we have an opportunity to climb up onto it and build atop, much like people have done in the years following every industrial revolution to date (this one will be the fourth, in case you lost count). What we lack in physical robustness, we make up for in ingenuity; it’s what has gotten us this far, and it’s what will take us into the next chapter.
Nonetheless, whether you’re afraid of it or thrilled by it, lights-out manufacturing isn’t going away. If the process is well-defined and repetitive then it has the potential to be automated, and it is already being incrementally deployed across every sector. As it stands, the choice is becoming resoundingly clear: help facilitate the inevitable, gaining an edge over the competition and favor with higher-ups in your industry, or sit idly by and watch the train pull out of the station, potentially with your job in tow.
In the next post in this series, we’ll dive further into how lights-out manufacturing is being applied to the oil and gas industry, and how you can implement the ‘lights-out’ methodology in your own organization.