Lights-Out Machining: You Go Home, the Machines Keep Working

Sep 14, 2011

Imagine going home out at night while your computer keeps doing your job. That’s the basic idea behind a trend in manufacturing called “lights-out machining.” You punch out. The machines keep working. It’s a way to make a lot more product with a lot fewer people … and fewer jobs. Here’s the story of two Michigan companies that are trying to boost productivity and stay competitive by turning out the lights and going home.

First, a little perspective. Man’s love/hate relationship with automation has been around a long time. Take the 1936 classic Modern Times.

Charlie Chaplin is in a frenzy. He’s tightening bolts on the factory line. The boss straps him into a person-feeding machine, so his hands can keep working while his mouth eats lunch. It’s a nightmare of productivity, where men are captive to machines. But manufacturers today have a different vision.

“At the end of the shift, my operators go home. Their machines continue running in the building with nobody in it,” says John Hill.

Hill owns a small business called Midwest Mold Services. The company designs and builds metal molds for plastic parts. These parts wind up in cars, medical devices, and even as the emblem on the back of a Cadillac. Hill says in the old days, shaping these metal molds was a job for one machine and one operator.

Now one operator programs multiple machines to carve steel almost continuously. Largely unattended. Lights-out. This is only part of John Hill’s business, but it’s the part that puts his productivity per actual employee on steroids. He says that productivity keeps his prices competitive and keeps 30 people in good jobs.

“If I was more, you know, it’s all about me, I could get rid of five more guys and buy two more machines and say life is good,” he says. “But it’s hard to tell somebody they don’t have a place here anymore.”

When it comes to manufacturing, productivity and jobs are two lines that don’t play together well on a graph. Corey Greenwald learned that the hard way. Twenty years ago, he got a degree in automated manufacturing technologies, but found that people fought it. They said it would take away jobs. And you know what?

“They were right, they were absolutely right,” he says. “What they didn’t know is that it wasn’t going to be their biggest enemy. Their enemy was gonna be developing countries around the world that had really cheap labor.”

Over those same twenty years, the U.S. lost about six million manufacturing jobs. Today, Corey Greenwald has restored a few of them. He runs a lights-out machine shop called Hard Milling Solutions, in Romeo, Michigan. He says the technology gave him his life back.

“Now, we don’t even have to check in on the machines unless they call us,” he says. Take the other weekend. Sunday afternoon. “I’m on Lake Michigan at the beach with my kids,” he says, “and my phone starts going off. And I’m thinking what is that?” Check the blackberry … it reads something like: “V56-1, email notification.”

Which means that particular machine has stopped. Greenwald can then go online and look at the machine through a surveillance camera. He can log into the machine itself and diagnose the problem. He can recalculate and reload the program, from Lake Michigan or Bangladesh. The only he can’t do remotely is press start. Someone still has to go in for that.

Back at Greenwald’s machine shop, 5:30 p.m. rolls around and Jeff Bond closes up for the night.

“Just shut the lights off for lights-out machining,” he says. “Actually, it’s a good feeling when you go home and they’re all running like that. It’s almost like having a night shift crew without having one.”

As all the workers leave for the night, I stay for a minute, just to listen. The shop hums with the sound of the new manufacturing: machines running through the night, though I’m the only person here.