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A New Trend in Precision Manufacturing? CNC Machine Shops Strive for “Lights Out” Capability

[December 7, 2013] At our Colorado CNC machining center, we strive to bring customers and frequent readers of our machine shop blog the latest information from across the precision manufacturing industry. We continue to report on good news! As you may or may not know, the milling and machining sector of the US manufacturing economy continues to improve. According to aBureau of Labor Statistics November 8th report, 19,000 new jobs were added in October of this year, and the Boston Consulting Group is reporting that many large manufacturers have plans to "reshore" their operations back to the US from China. Ironically though, many machine shops are faced with the unforeseen difficulty of finding qualified CNC machinists to employ. This made us think and want to share with you an interesting trend gaining momentum; the concept of "lights out" manufacturing.

To shed some light on this topic, we'll keep it simple. Lights out manufacturing or precision machining is a methodology employed on a machine shop floor in which automation plays a key role. A CNC machine shop running a lights out operation utilizes automated milling and machining tools to manufacture parts with little or no human intervention on site. This can be done after hours or on weekends, during which the lights are out; hence the name. For example, a multiple pallet system is normally employed in which a CNC milling machine is fed raw material via a tooling tower allowing it to run unattended for hours, producing desired parts. Typically though, as this technology is still in its infancy, a 2nd or 3rd shift worker is still needed to load parts onto the tower and remove the completed work. In an industry facing some difficulty finding qualified CNC machinists, combined with an overall effort to reduce labor costs, lights out machining clearly is an advantage. However, this type of automation produces other benefits to machine shop owners.

In a recent article from CNC Cookbook, a software and information company for CNC machinists, their analysis of the industry's top shops found that one of the things that makes them more productive and more profitable than others is that they are 39% more likely to do lights out CNC machining. The most obvious advantage that stands out is the automation's ability to boost productivity without a raising labor costs. In addition, in a lights out environment, the need for qualified set-up operators is reduced, along with CNC machine set-up times and the overall run-times for all jobs. As an added benefit, there are even energy use considerations. Many power companies offer off-peak usage discounts (nights and weekends), and when the shop floor is unstaffed, HVAC costs go down, resulting in further profitability.

In general, the emerging technology of lights out machining is in no way a solution to the current staffing level problems many precision machine shops face today. We don't foresee automation as filling the role of a qualified CNC machinist, but merely augmenting it. For more great information, check out CNC Cookbook's Lights Out Machining Introduction, the latest new article in their CNC Machining and Manufacturing Cookbook collection.

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About the Author

Gerry Dillon is a co-founder, current owner and certified CNC machinist at Advanced Precision Machining (APM), a full-service machine shop located in Longmont, Colorado. Before making his home in the United States in 2000, Gerry was born and raised on the emerald isle of Ireland and took an interest in milling and machining from an early age, ranking #1 in the Irish National Apprenticeship Program. In 2005, he partnered with his friend and colleague, Kirk Tuesburg, currently APM’s machine shop manager, together launching what’s grown into a leading Colorado machine shop. Gerry brings over 30 years of machining experience to the shop floor, and is certified in all aspects of geometric dimensioning and tolerancing.

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