Firms begin to turn the lights out

Pirelli’s Bicocca plant appears to achieve what has long been a manufacturing ideal: the `lights-out’ or fully automated factory. Despite hype, few factories have approached the ideal. Probably the most advanced is Fanuc Robotics’ manufacturing complex at Oshimo-mura in Yamanashi province, Japan. A complete lights-out operation produces everything from NC machine tool controllers, sensors and […]

Pirelli’s Bicocca plant appears to achieve what has long been a manufacturing ideal: the `lights-out’ or fully automated factory. Despite hype, few factories have approached the ideal.

Probably the most advanced is Fanuc Robotics’ manufacturing complex at Oshimo-mura in Yamanashi province, Japan. A complete lights-out operation produces everything from NC machine tool controllers, sensors and encoders to robots. Its 600 robots perform jobs ranging from printed circuit board assembly, electric motor winding, casting and machining. Even assembly of robots is by robots.

Fanuc’s I21i system is used in final assembly. Two-armed robots with vision systems are used, allowing them to carry out such intricate tasks as picking up the components for a bearing and assembling it.

Apart from these, says Ken Young of the British Automation and Robotic Association, who is a principal research fellow at Warwick Manufacturing Centre: `I don’t know anyone who’s truly done lights out. Most robots are used in car lines and that’s far from lights out.’

The most common car industry uses for robots is in body welding and spraying. But VW in Germany and Fiat in Italy have taken automation further, using them in trim and final assembly.

Yamazaki’s Worcester machining centre factory uses highly automated machine tools and transfer lines.

And North West Water has automated water quality testing at an `analytical factory’ near Warrington. Its 20 robots deal with 2,000 samples a day.

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