The workforce of the future may require a constantly decreasing human workforce, even as production needs grow.

This seemingly contradictory reality is a real possibility as robotic technology continues to advance. Such technology has enabled more manufacturing operations to be performed without human help.

Factories already exist, where programmed robots complete certain tasks. Human counterparts typically hover nearby to provide supervision, activate certain programs, or to troubleshoot.

Introducing Lights Out Manufacturing

However, a new “lights out” manufacturing approach advances the concept: a whole shift of pre-programmed robots performing fully automated tasks. These workers don’t need breaks or days off. In fact, they don’t even need lights or HVAC.

Imagine the possibilities in other industrial applications: robots working in hazardous conditions and dangerous environments. A workforce free of tardiness, absenteeism, fatigue or “human error.” The light out approach also solves the challenge of finding dependable workers for repetitive tasks, and for tasks with low job retention.

In Japan’s FANUC facility, robots produce other robots. As a company focused on automation solutions for industrial clients around the world since the 1950s, FANUC has a complex of 22 factories where a group of robots works around the clock. It’s a truly lights out production environment, without heat and air conditioning, and little human supervision.

FANUC produces 22,000 to 23,000 robots a month for a variety of clients including Tesla.

Automation in the Food and Beverage Industry

Another example is a Constellation Beer factory in Mexico which, according to RC Wireless, is nearly self-sufficient: six humans each shift coordinates a fleet of 70 laser-guided vehicles to move and stack product, tasks that previously required 250 forklifts. The vehicles also pause when they need maintenance like a battery charge.

Symbiotic, a food distributor, is also working on getting to this point as it uses warehouse robots to move product to different retailers.

Automation World said ‘lights out’ offers a certain appeal to some organizations, especially where robots can perform repetitive tasks in conditions that could be dangerous to humans or lead to high fatigue, injury or errors. But it wouldn’t necessarily be a good fit where human decision making is required, such as quality control.

However, the concept also has some conceptual challenges before more companies adapt to it.

Barriers to Lights Out Manufacturing

Transitioning to lights out facilities requires significant capital investment for the ‘smart’ machinery, plus humans to provide programming. As an alternative, some in the industry suggest “co-bots,” a term for robots providing the intensive labor with humans assisting with the variables and precise tasks. Others suggest that robots could be provided on a temporary rotation/rental basis to various organizations or facilities, rather than being permanent assets.

Beyond the possible boost in efficiency and productivity, there could be larger social concerns, namely the reduced need for human workers. Writer Matthew Biggins at Hackernoon describes a bleak future where more robots inevitably equals more unemployment.

He specifically refers to companies like Amazon using human workers while also seeking new ways to automate routine tasks, such as fulfilling orders. He encourages readers to learn more about emerging robotic and lights out technology so they can be a part of it, rather than becoming a victim of it.