Thursday, October 28, 2010

Lights Out: how a Japanese robotics facility is changing the face of manufacturing.

The recent economic collapse and following recession has affected nearly everyone on the planet, nowhere is this more evident than in the manufacturing sector. The majority of the jobs lost in recent years (at least in the States and in Canada) has been technical labour, generally in auto assembly and other manufacturing positions. A new form of manufacturing, called Lights Out manufacturing, will most likely make this problem worse since it increases production efficiency. But before we discuss the social aspects, we`ll take a look at just how cool it all is.

One of the largest companies currently using this method of production is Japan based FANUC (Factory Automatic Numerical Control) Ltd. This company specializes in robotics manufacturing: servo motors, mechanical arms etc, all with a slight twist. There is minimal human involvement in the entire process. What they've essentially produced is robots, that build other robots. That is in a nutshell what Lights Out manufacturing is, a funny term stating that because there are no humans present in the factory the lights could technically be turned off without any change in operations.

As you sit here reading this, FANUC robots are building and assembling other robots at a rate of about 50 per day (remember, they don't need to take breaks) and can run unsupervised for as long as 30 days. The only time humans visit is to deliver the robots to their clients, primarily auto manufacturers. According to FANUC vice-president Gary Zywiol, "Not only is it lights-out, we turn off the air conditioning and heat too". These robots are so efficient, companies like Panasonic have been able to produce up to 2 million plasma screen televisions per month, all with a whopping 15 people monitoring the factory floor.

Here is the famed robot-robot factory. In this case, they're producing servo motors which will be used in moving the arms of their fellow brothers and sisters.

Notice the complete lack of human involvement, and the sweet sounding servo motors in action.

On the social side of things, it's almost inevitable to not think of the further job losses associated with this kind of production. It'll eventually replace almost all manual labour jobs in the manufacturing industry, probably contributing even more to the poor economic situation we've found ourselves in. I know that personally, I should be more worried and feeling bad about the future job losses associated with this new assembly method, but to be 100% honest, I'm really not. I realize that having so many people out of work will cause definitive social, political, and economic strife, not to mention that it's quite cruel to our fellow humans who rely on jobs like these to feed their families and live their day to day lives. but I also feel that the revolving wheel of technological advancement is something which cannot be ignored. To be brutally honest about the whole thing, these machines and the manufacturing methods make human laborours simply obsolete: we have machines that never take breaks and can work non-stop, require no income, no benefits, no health plans, and take no sick days; it's a no-brainer why manufacturing companies would prefer this method. Even so, the same was probably said of the printing press when it was first invented: it took away the well-being of priests and scribes who would traditionally spend time copying and writing by hand. And despite all that, I remain optimistic that although manufacturing jobs might disappear, computer programming jobs will take their place as more of these robots require complex programming. The jobs simply transfer from one venue to the next. Am I being too optimistic? Perhaps, but who knows, perhaps the blue-collar worker of the future will look like Bill Gates....just an amusing afterthought.


  1. Great blog! Stunning! Thanks for this. I am now start loving Japanese manufacturing companies.

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