Jul 23, 2019

Lights Out Manufacturing Examples and the Role of 3D Printing

lights out manufacturingAutomation is pervasive throughout all industries and at all points in many manufacturing processes. Manufacturing engineers have gone so far as to develop the philosophy of lights out manufacturing, where human involvement in the manufacturing process is reduced to the greatest extent possible. Fully automated factories that implement the lights out philosophy for heavy and light manufacturing are already in operation.

When it comes to automation, manufacturing processes for simpler products and repetitive processes are easier to automate, eventually reaching the point where a small number of machines or robots can execute an entire manufacturing process with little or no human intervention. The expanding range of 3D printing processes allows more industries to switch to a digital lights out manufacturing methodology as these processes become applicable to a broader range of products.

Lights out manufacturing example system for machine vision

Machine vision systems are critical for lights out manufacturing.

One should expect the range of applicability to continue expanding, and existing manufacturing operations should seriously consider complementing or replacing their existing operations with additive manufacturing techniques. Given the fabrication times, repetitive steps, and material waste involved in subtractive PCB manufacturing processes, additive manufacturing has the potential to drastically change the PCB fabrication landscape going into the future. Some lights out manufacturing examples can already be found in industry, and the capabilities of digital additive manufacturing will start to take a lead role as the range of 3D printing systems and processes continues to expand.

Lights Out Manufacturing Examples in Industry

Many companies are using technology to provide greater automation on the factory floor and to increase uptime. This requires massive levels of connectivity and remote control over manufacturing assets across the factory floor. Further, this isn’t limited to traditional manufacturing processes—as companies integrate 3D printing systems with other automated traditional manufacturing processes, increased levels of automation on the factory floor allow production to run 24/7 with minimal human intervention.

One example that illustrates the onshoring potential provided by lights out manufacturing and 3D printing can be found at a 3D printing farm in Brooklyn. This boutique manufacturing firm operates more than 160 3D printers that produce plastic parts. When supported with a programmable production robot that performs harvesting tasks, the facility can run throughout the night. This use of lights out manufacturing initially reduced labor costs by 10%, and the company’s costs have continued to decrease as the company has scaled.

Other companies in the manufacturing sector are focusing on creating systems that enable greater automation in a variety of industries. As an example, the Japanese multinational FANUC Ltd. has a lights out factory of robots that create other manufacturing systems and robots. Their machines are already used to totally automate the fabrication of parts used in consumer products, including the newest iPhone.

These applications and countless others illustrate the benefits of the IoT and greater automation in the manufacturing sector. Lights out manufacturing relies on full connectivity between each portion of a factory and among different manufacturing assets that perform different processes—often referred to as digital manufacturing. Transforming disparate processes into an integrated end-to-end system is made possible with IoT devices that gather data and provide interconnectivity between various portions of a factory.

The connectivity, monitoring and communication offered by these technologies allow workers in a central control room the ability to monitor and control various portions of a process from a single location, providing productivity data and alerting workers of required maintenance.

Additive manufacturing is already playing a supporting role in lights out manufacturing in that it complements traditional manufacturing processes. As these industry 4.0 systems and 3D printing processes continue to improve, one can expect that additive manufacturing will take a greater role in future lights out manufacturing processes.

The Rise of Lights Out Manufacturing for PCB Fabrication

The primary reason behind the offshoring of PCB fabrication capabilities is the labor costs involved in manufacturing. Although PCBs are responsible for the proliferation of new technology to the masses, automation in PCB manufacturing has lagged behind nearly all other industries. PCB production requires a series of several separate production steps which are difficult to fully automate meaning that direct labor costs and human error remain part of the manufacturing equation. Increased levels of automation, however, as well as intellectual property and security concerns, will lead to greater onshoring of PCB fabrication capabilities.

Higher labor costs in Western countries will encourage total automation to keep manufacturing plants at home. This also solves quality labor and security problems. PCB manufacturing is no exception—reducing the level of human involvement in each step of the manufacturing process will ultimately lower costs, allowing manufacturing capabilities to migrate back to Western countries as well as to facilitate distributed manufacturing closer to the point of need..

Additive manufacturing systems are naturally applicable to lights out manufacturing due to the highly automated nature of 3D printing. The traditional manufacturing process for planar PCBs consists of many repetitive steps, especially for multilayer PCBs with high layer count. Additive manufacturing offers manufacturers the ability to reduce fabrication time at competitive costs, and the highly automated nature of 3D printing processes makes these systems a natural complement to any lights out manufacturing facility.

Design simplification and the inherent layer-by-layer printing process for a new PCB requires fewer steps to fabricate a new product. PCB fabrication lines and assembly lines could run without manual operation, instead being manned from a control room by a small number of skilled workers. Workers can then pass instructions to different machines involved in a manufacturing process, allowing it to run 24/7 with minimal human intervention.

Worker in manufacturing control room

In the future, manufacturing jobs might look more like this.

The simplified fabrication process involved in additive manufacturing for PCBs allows designers to focus on creating unique, complex devices with greater functionality due to simplification of PCB fabrication with additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing systems for PCBs implement a layer-by-layer printing process that is adaptable to boards with complex shapes and non-planar geometry. This gives designers significant freedom to design boards with unique interconnect architecture, greater embedding of components, and fully customizable form factor.

If you are in the process of automating your manufacturing processes for PCB fabrication, using an inkjet additive manufacturing system can expedite prototyping and complete fabrication of complex 3D-printed electronics. The DragonFly LDM is a perfect system for implementing digital manufacturing, such as the lights out manufacturing examples discussed here, for the fabrication of planar and non-planar electronics. Read a case- study or contact us today to learn more about DragonFly LDM.

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