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An introduction to Lights Out Manufacturing

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Imagine your shop running seven days a week, 20 hours a day, with only a few employees. It’s possible.

Light’s Out Manufacturing is a viable concept that exists with today’s technology. It’s a fully automated system with robots and digital fabrication machinery churning out products with most of the staff tucked away in their beds. It’s often hailed as the next big step to greater productivity and profits in the woodworking industry.

It’s a massive undertaking, often beginning with major structural and infrastructural improvements. There are numerous details to consider, but as long as we’re still dreaming, let’s explore the process.

If it we’re me, I’d spend a lot of time devising a business plan that starts with how long I anticipate being in business relative to the amount of capital and time required to partially or fully implement Lights Out Manufacturing. Then I’d have a succession plan in place.

Not every shop would have to start from scratch. Shops with a CNC router should be familiar with projecting profits against production forecasts. They have crossed the threshold of thinking about the business in terms of cash flow, rather than simply building cabinets or furniture.

I’d also start by investigating the purchase of a multi-axis CNC router with more than one spindle and at least one drill head. The idea behind this type of machine is to be able to perform as many machining tasks as possible on a given piece of material without removing or refixturing.

Having a multi-axis CNC router will give you and your employees, both on the shop floor and the CAD and CAM operators, experience with such a machine. This will allow everyone to envision how to produce parts more efficiently, and how to be able to make parts that had previously not been able to be made in your shop, which is a way to expand your customer base and spread the cost of the new hardware and its installation, new software, and employee training over a wider variety of customers and products.

Options for automated material handling range from software that controls a vacuum lift to a 9-axis robot capable of loading and unloading two machines. A furniture manufacturer might start with a 6-axis robot in a work cell configuration.

It’s not an all or nothing proposition. There are ways to ease into Lights Out Manufacturing that augments a shop’s current work flow, not completely take it over. This allows the shop’s personnel, specifically its CAD and CAM operators, to gain experience and hopefully realize new opportunities. 

This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue.

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