Automation is more than a buzzword. The trend of progressively greater automation ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution has exploded alongside advances in computing. The most advanced manufacturing facilities currently employ more robots than humans. The simpler, repetitive tasks are taken on by robots, while humans are engaged in more tasks requiring greater creativity and foresight. Meanwhile, the most advanced factories include interconnected manufacturing equipment throughout the fabrication and assembly lines, which help streamline efficiency and data collection on the factory floor.
This move toward greater automation and interconnectivity is a central part of a new manufacturing methodology, known as lights out manufacturing. So what is lights out manufacturing, and how is it set to affect different industries? This is about more than greater automation of simpler tasks with robots. It requires rethinking the processes used to manufacture advanced products, ranging from complicated mechanical parts to PCBs and electronics.
What is lights out manufacturing? It’s bringing greater automation to electronics manufacturing.
What Is Lights Out Manufacturing?
Lights out manufacturing is a manufacturing method that enables production with minimal or zero human intervention. This relies on greater automation at critical portions of the manufacturing process such that a process can continue once humans leave the factory. Very few factories operate for long periods of time without any human intervention. However, there are some examples of factories that can produce for extended periods while left unattended. This changes the role of humans in a factory to one of quality control, effective planning, maintenance, and logistics.
Automation is not a new concept and has helped drive productivity since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Some of the earliest mentions of the lights out manufacturing concept span back to the 1950s. However, the technology required to nearly completely automate manufacturing activities in a variety of industries has unfolded slowly. This includes a transition to digitally-driven product design and control over manufacturing assets, as well as greater connectivity between manufacturing assets with a standardized data format.
In a lights out manufacturing operation, the role of humans is to manage the facility, plan production to meet demand quotas, and program automated assets to continue production in their absence. In other words, the factory is set up to continue running after humans leave and the overhead lights are turned off. This requires synchronization among multiple manufacturing assets, where digital product models are put into a production queue, and instructions for each portion of the process are fed to each piece of equipment on a fabrication line.
With more industries embracing the core concepts of Industry 4.0, there is a real demand for technologies that enable partial or full lights out manufacturing in a variety of industries. Additive manufacturing systems are already an integral digital manufacturing technology, making them ideal for inclusion in a lights out manufacturing line. Additive processes are well-known in the aerospace and automotive industries, and precise fabrication processes are being perfected for producing fully-functional PCBs.
How Lights Out Manufacturing Affects PCB Production
The traditional PCB manufacturing process involves a number of repetitive deposition, etching, pressing, and drilling processes, with the number of fabrication and assembly steps reaching several dozen for multilayer PCBs. This presents an ideal opportunity for greater innovation and automation. The repetitive and highly standardized nature of these steps makes them ripe for greater automation.
Some of the most innovative digital manufacturers have moved in this direction and have integrated 3D printing and digital manufacturing systems and methods into their processes. The industry is slowly moving toward greater digitization of PCB fabrication capabilities, ultimately culminating in lights out PCB manufacturing.
While the current level of automation allows for rapid prototyping and greater customization, it does little to offset costs and does not alleviate the manufacturing constraints imposed by traditional PCB fabrication processes. These manufacturing constraints limit PCB designers in terms of innovation in advanced electronics products.
Additive manufacturing systems, with their layer-by-layer deposition process, are ideal for replacing the repetitive deposition, etching, pressing, and drilling steps involved in traditional multilayer PCB fabrication. The inherently digital nature of additive manufacturing systems allows them to be integrated into a lights out manufacturing process with traditional pick-and-place and soldering units, forming a near-fully automated manufacturing process for fully-functional PCBs.
This automated soldering robot can be used alongside additive processes to assemble finished PCBs with off-the-shelf-components.
3D Printing in Lights Out PCB Manufacturing
Additive manufacturing processes carry unique cost drivers, in which the fabrication time and costs are fixed. They only depend on the weight of materials being deposited, rather than the complexity of the finished product. This makes the fabrication time for a given product highly predictable, allowing these processes to be easily integrated into a lights out manufacturing operation for PCB production.
3D printing processes also free designers from the DFM constraints imposed by traditional manufacturing processes, allowing for the production of more advanced PCBs and innovation of PCBs with a high degree of design freedom allowing for unique interconnect architecture and board geometry. These designs can be quickly produced in-house in a matter of hours, rather than waiting weeks for a prototyping run. This allows these advanced designs to be tested and available for inspection immediately even before production begins, helping innovative companies save an enormous amount of time in the R&D process and move to full-scale production quickly.
The layer-by-layer deposition process in some 3D printing systems for PCBs, such as an inkjet 3D printing system, allows codeposition of conductors and the PCB substrate. As more advanced materials are adapted for additive processes, we can expect greater use of new materials for unique applications and greater customization of finished products.
If you’re ready to embrace what is lights out manufacturing for PCB production, the DragonFly LDM system from Nano Dimension is an ideal solution for producing complex electronics in-house and at scale. This unique system provides low to medium-scale fabrication of PCBs with planar or non-planar geometry, complex interconnect architecture, and embedded components. Read a case study or contact us today to learn more about the DragonFly LDM system.