The idea of using collaborative robots for lights-out manufacturing can seem like a contradiction in terms. After all, cobots differ from traditional robots by being able to work side-by-side with human workers, and lights-out manufacturing is a human-free automation approach. But the collaborative aspect of cobots is more than just the ability to share a work cell. Cobots are also defined by their affordability, flexibility, and ease-of-use—traits that are critical for new lights-out applications.
LIGHTS-OUT MANUFACTURING IS GETTING SMALLER
Factories with no humans in sight are still rare and are typically limited to extremely high-volume, high-cost operations. The vast majority of manufacturers are small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs), with limited automation budgets to support what is often low-volume, high-mix, or changeable applications.
Many SMEs are interested in a lights-out approach for third-shift operations or to address seasonal peaks. In today’s market, where manufacturers are struggling to hire and retain workers as well as meet quality and delivery expectations, those additional shifts can be difficult—and expensive—to staff. In other situations, manufacturers may choose to use lights-out automation for specific processes that are unsuitable or unsafe for human workers to be around, such as those that involve extreme temperatures or noxious gases.
INVEST IN ADDITIONAL CNC MACHINE, OR INCREASE CAPACITY OF THE ONE IN-HOUSE?
New Jersey-based Whippany Actuation Systems makes components for the aerospace and defense industries. When the company suddenly needed to increase capacity, the options were to make a significant investment in an additional CNC machine or to make better use of the one in-house. A UR cobot with an adaptive gripper now handles multiple part sizes and allows Whippany to run two additional unattended shifts using the existing CNC machine.
Phil De Mauro, Whippany manufacturing engineering leader, said, “We’ve added capacity by being able to run the machine during unattended hours, but it’s also freed-up skilled workers to do other tasks as opposed to loading and unloading the machine—it frees them up to do more value-added activities.”
Lights-out automation has helped Whippany meet its increased productivity goals, but it also helps in other factors, such as improved margins, increased competitiveness, and shortened lead time. Read the full Whippany case study.