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FUTURE OF SMART FACTORIES Dark Factories – Next phase of Smart Factories

Dec 27, 2022

The evolution of the industry has seen standardisation, mechanisation, automation and intelligent & self-governing machines as part of the Industry 1.0 to 4.0 or 5.0 stages. As an extreme side of automation, the concept of self-running, completely automatic factories without any intervention of mankind are getting known as ‘Dark Factories’. A read on… - Shirish Kulkarni, Founder & MD, STROTA ConsulTech

As the industry evolution continues with the perspective of smart manufacturing, IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things), Industry 4.0 -> 5.0, AI/ML for data-based decision making - the concept of factories, which can work continuously and independently - without any human intervention – round-the-clock is getting evolved as ‘Dark Factories’.

With such factories, there are indeed gains like increased productivity, even up to 250%, errors decreased by 80%, reduced production costs, lesser outages and revenue losses, and reduction of scrap are ensured, while the higher initial costs, involved and sophisticated product systems, complexity in safety and failure prevention are definite aspects that raise the challenges in the design, development, deployment and running of these Dark Factories.

Adopting Dark Factories

It is evident that Dark Factories is a concept to be around and will stay to become a part of reality and would be constrained by the balancing concepts in Industry 5.0 like human centricity, resilience and sustainability. It is proposed to have a maturity framework for evaluating any existing factory for its readiness to become a Dark Factory – which will get established and would be leveraged as entry-baselining criteria of evaluation. Some of the global companies have already shown some proof points and we would see more and more portions of industries adopt it.

As a technical definition Dark Factories are futuristic factories where machines will be fully automated and can function without human power or with less human power when compared to the current smart factories. Dark Factories are claimed to increase productivity with zero-error in manufacturing processes and are estimated to eliminate almost 90% of the human workforce without compromising the production routine.

The section below will outline the possibilities, constraints, pros-and-cons of the Dark Factory – from concept to realisation and bring out some realities to set a baseline for the future.

Evolution of Dark Factories

Industry 4.0 brings about the concepts of connected, self-governed, self-decision-making and intelligent manufacturing (and other parts of the value chain) in an enterprise. While Industry 4.0 and smart factory are not a fantasy but a reality that can bring in a more effective and agile system, less production downtime, transparency and help place themselves better in the competitive marketplace.

As we progress on these lines and the industries evolve with a higher level of maturity, this will automatically result in less or non-manual intervention. This means machines will work round-the-clock and all-days-a-week and all-days-in-the-year.

The intervention and maintenance processes are also automated, self-triggering and self-corrected using AI and ML. Humans can be remote and watch the control element from dashboards and check if the exceptions are handled by the self-learning system as a checkpoint. This is exactly how the concept of Dark Factories has evolved. An equivalent term for Dark Factories is Lights-out Manufacturing, which implies that the plant continues to be productive even when the lights are out.

Analysing possibilities

During the pandemic, industries with advanced machinery had a higher chance of continuing their manufacturing processes. It has brought a clear realisation that there is a need to have more sophisticated and automated systems for the industries to run on an auto-pilot mode, and surely this will lead to the implementation of Dark Factories.

With fully automated factories, we will never have to worry or wait to begin front-line production. It can be turned into a continuous process. Incorporating lights-off methodologies into floor plans saves cost, space and time. Research reveals that a fully automated factory can increase productivity even up to 250% and the errors decreased by 80%. No doubt within a period of five to ten years, industries across the world will embrace the change of becoming smart factories and those who already run a smart factory will transform into fully automated Dark Factories.

The positive drivers

The current advances on the technology front are resulting in a lot of movement of factories to following directions, emerging as the positive drivers for making Dark Factories a reality.

  • The rapidly falling price of robots (on a side note: we also need to emphasise the fast growth of the cobots market where ease of use and flexible advanced cobots attract buyers while the strict separation between robots & cobots disappears)

  • Continuously increasing labour costs in manufacturing (let’s also not forget the labour shortage and skills gap that exists for some years in some countries in manufacturing)

  • Classic drivers such as cost savings and increasing production output

  • The need of companies to expand production capacity beyond traditional shift hours, for instance, to take on additional orders and other reasons to ramp up production (remember how the pandemic hindered manufacturing output)

  • The need to be more flexible (one can think of unexpected production of a-typical goods as during the pandemic here too), more resilient (business resilience being the new holy grail), and shock-proof

  • The opportunities ‘lights out’ offer to innovate and embrace new opportunities and manufacturing approaches

  • Sustainability possibilities with energy-saving opportunities during production hours

Towards the new reality

Dark Factory is likely to be a new reality, and it is on its way to becoming the new norm for the next stages of mass production and automation. The expansion of lights-out production can be attributed to result into the following benefits:

  • Lower production costs – The primary benefit of dark manufacturing is low costs. Employee salaries are eliminated due to the lack of a workforce, as articulated robots can work in dark and non-climate-controlled situations, thereby, conserving utilities.

  • Enhanced productivity and product quality – Since a single robot can complete tasks that would typically need multiple employees, robots help boost plant productivity substantially. Besides, accuracy and precision lead to better product quality. As robots are designed to obey application-specific instructions, uniformity in workpieces results in minimal inconsistencies.

  • Eliminates labour availability issues – Manufacturers have faced labour shortages in recent years, particularly for skilled labour roles. The pool of resources interested in manual labour has been shrinking day by day, making it challenging to fill vacancies and keep the continuity in the production line. This problem is solved by using automated equipment to fill robotic positioners instead of employees in Dark Factories.

Challenges while rolling out Dark Factories

Dark Factories come with a mixed bag of pros and cons. One foremost disadvantage of changing to an automated facility is the initial costs. Existing traditional businesses tend to come across this issue more than newly designed facilities. The structural change that comes with automation, as well as new equipment to allow automation, can add up to a big initial investment.

Following are the challenges that a manufacturer may address when rolling out a Dark Factory:

Human workforce: A significant impact of automation affects the human workforce. Automation makes way for new jobs in different fields of expertise. There is the potential to assign human jobs, which are mundane, repetitive and full of risk/danger to life to robots and machines instead. The rise of Dark Factories also has the potential to cause a shift in the demand for jobs.

Architecture transformation: Some of the manufacturing facilities are decades old and are often in brownfield locations. A conversion to a Dark Factory would require a significant change of architecture and hence capital, along with a suspension of operations, so that the new equipment can be installed, calibrated and tested before operations resume.

Technical challenges: Setting up completely automated processes can be a highly technical challenge that may require significantly advanced technological solutions, that allow manufacturers to collect and use machine data to automate processes, with ROI occurring in as few as five years or more easily and quickly.

Complex production: Simple, repeatable, mundane and risky tasks are the best fit for standardisation and hence automation. More complex tasks, which involves skills and tacit knowledge of human, as well as small-scale production runs and operations, may prove more difficult to roll out automation or experience enough value.

Safety and failure prevention: There is a catch with having no humans monitoring production. If something does go wrong, there may be no one to catch it, which could result in thousands of dollars’ worth of scrap parts, or significant damage to machines. Luckily, remote monitoring and automated machine failure detection can work to avoid these issues.

The technological advancement

The installation of a Dark Factory needs strategic planning for the effective use of tools and technologies. The lack of strategies could lead to various challenges like safety, reliability, flexibility, and network performance. Besides, expensive installation costs and a lack of quality are other major challenges. We can overcome these challenges through the effective use of the below technologies:

  • Advancements in robotics, automation and 5G

  • Innovative processes like 3D Printing

  • Advancements in automated non-destructive inspection and quality technologies

  • Operational Technology (OT) that conducts unattended production processes

  • Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning (AI/ML)

  • Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies designed for industrial applications

Constraints

Industry 5.0 is a model of the next level of industrialisation is characterised by the return of manpower to factories, distributed production, intelligent supply chains and hyper customisation – all aimed to deliver a tailored customer experience time after time (Frost & Sullivan).

Industry 5.0 brings in the perspective of building a constraint or self-governance to the degree of automation, machine-dependency and inclusion of the human-element – by the three governing pillars named:

  1. Human-centric: Engages human at the intelligence and correction level.

  2. Resilient: Drives the flexibility element to accommodate the fast changing market requirements and dynamics due to technological disruptions.

  3. Sustainable: Dimension of the sustainability of the ecosystem, environment and hence the planet.

These three pillars build a logical constraint to the self-wheeling growth of self-limiting and self-governing systems, which might result in getting into a risk of uncontrolled situations. Industry 5.0 recognises the power of industry to achieve societal goals beyond jobs and growth to become a resilient provider of prosperity, by making production respect the boundaries of our planet and placing the well-being of the industry worker at the center of the production process.

What is the maturity framework?

A maturity framework to evaluate the state of any factory for its readiness to adopt the concept of Dark Factories is proposed. This will have tenets of mandatorily required elements put in various layers, right from the hardware to the analytics or dashboarding layers – covering perspectives of the state-of-the-art infrastructure, real-time data acquisition and processing systems, control systems, supervisory systems, and then the planning and management layers.

With this comprehensive framework, the factory's gap to reach the maturity for the required readiness to adopt the Dark Factory is calculated and becomes an indication of how far or how quick and expensive is the journey for this factory to reach the destination. This framework could also be used for the due-diligence phase to identify the gaps for each of the sub-elements and methodically be able to close them in a phased manner to aim at achieving the required readiness.

Dark Factories – Some examples

In recent years, Dark Factories have become popular among diverse industries. China is number one in the world to adopt Dark Factories. Japanese robotic company FANUC uses Dark Factories. The company is making robots with the help of robots since 2001. The latest study says that the company is building around 50 robots in a day without light, heat, or air. Also, a Dutch company, Philips, has already implemented Dark Factories for making electric razors. The company has only nine humans working as quality assessors to supervise processes.

FANUC – A secretive Japanese company that is arguably one of the first companies to implement a Lights-out
Manufacturing culture.

Amazon – The technology giant extensively uses robotic systems in their distribution centers with minimal human intervention.

Philips – A company known to produce electric razors, among other things, that boasts of a facility with 128 robots while employing less than a dozen employees for quality assurance.

A diesel automotive facility in China has also implemented more of a Dark Factory approach to automate its assembly line more fully. Sensors embedded in the robotics alert workers when bottlenecks occur, or when the machine’s state and run-time require human intervention. Integrating advanced analytics and Internet of Things (IoT) technology has also helped the facility use predictive maintenance to avoid equipment breakdowns. These examples are going to make more and more manufacturing end-to-end use cases to be covered using the principles of automation, visibility, control and predictive modelling.

Going ahead with Dark Factories

Dark Factories are meant to implement crewless operational areas on the shop floor, or crewless phases of the manufacturing process, a lights-sparse factory generates new efficiencies, lower costs, and in some instances, improved quality compared to the existing conventional operations. This approach is observed to result in benefits, such as:

  • Reduced labour costs

  • Automation of monotonous processes

  • Agility and flexibility to meet changing demands

  • Reduced error rates

  • Material management efficiencies

  • Accelerated product lifecycles

  • Faster replication of processes to new sites

Digital transformation has become a priority in the manufacturing industry. For industrial companies, Dark Factories are a modern manufacturing choice where operations take place in a round-the-clock fashion. These businesses seek to execute tedious and risky operations in a safe environment. The arrival of Dark Factories is enabling to running of a factory using programming robots and automated manufacturing systems without human interference.

We are already aware that Dark Factory is the outcome of different technologies. Making technological advances using state-of-the-art solutions in manufacturing processes would encourage industries to adopt the future of factories to be competent in technology. There are factors to be considered as feasibility, benefits, associated regulations and compliance with business objectives irrespective of technologies. It is recommended to leverage the maturity framework to arrive at the readiness index for the factory under consideration to build the road map for the transformation into a Dark Factory state.

Image Gallery

  • Evolution of Dark Factories

    Evolution of Dark Factories

  • The current advances on the technology front are resulting in a lot of movement of factories

    The current advances on the technology front are resulting in a lot of movement of factories

  • Dark Factory is likely to be a new reality

    Dark Factory is likely to be a new reality

  • Dark Factories have become popular among diverse industries

    Dark Factories have become popular among diverse industries

  • Shirish Kulkarni
Founder & MD
STROTA ConsulTech

    Shirish Kulkarni

    Founder & MD

    STROTA ConsulTech

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