Is the “Dark Factory” the Future of Manufacturing? – Part 1
By Tom Gilmartin, PE
Recently many employers have had to limit the number of people on their premises. Some may have wondered – what would it be like to have the whole plant automated to the point where we don’t need plant-floor workers at all? With no need for people on the floor, there’s no need for lights – hence the term “dark factory.”
Based on experience support efficient manufacturing, which sometimes includes more automation, we can say … probably not.
To see why, consider the example of driverless cars. A few years ago, there was a hope that sensory devices, machine learning and interconnectivity would allow driverless vehicles to safely navigate city streets. However, experience has found that because of the huge range of possible outcomes, the need for judgment calls and the high consequences of failure, fully automated driving keeps receding into the future.
In manufacturing, likewise, there are simply too many things to go wrong. Pipelines leak, bolts come loose, pumps malfunction and blockages develop. Humans notice that sort of thing, while a robot won’t.
And, humans can often see opportunities to improve productivity, and no robot or computer algorithm will do that either. Like driving on public roads, manufacturing is too complicated to leave to the robots.
This means that at least for the foreseeable future, there will be a need for human plant-floor employees. They’re needed for their ability to problem-solve, use their judgment and learn from experience. Those people may require an increasingly high level of skill, but a completely automated factory is just not viable with current technology.
However, there are a lot of potential benefits to investing in automation. One of the biggest benefits is doing away with of some of the most boring, routine and hard-to-fill jobs on the plant floor.
Just as the current environment has forced a significant amount of change in white-collar operations that took away much of the drudgery, it may result in more interesting work for manufacturing employees too.
This article is first in a four-part series discussing how manufacturers can prosper in the “next normal.”