Is Lights Out Automation a Bright Idea? Or Just a Bump-in-the-Night Concept

By Gary Forger

For the past six weeks, we’ve been looking at automation from several angles. Everything from its impact on processes and costs to people. Last week, we discussed warning signs that you’ve gone too far with automation. Which brings up an interesting topic – lights out automation facility wide. Lights out in its purest form means no people in the plant or warehouse. Everything is automated so there’s not much need to see what’s happening out on the floor.  

Your first reaction is most likely -- that’s going too far. Maybe, maybe not. Do you want to spend all day picking orders in a refrigerated warehouse or freezer? Probably not. And you’re not alone. In fact, these facilities are one of the sweet spots for a lights out operation. In addition, many of the lights out or nearly lights out facilities operating today cluster in the grocery and health/beauty retailer segments. In fact, one supplier has installed nearly 60 of these facilities worldwide in these and other industries. 

Perhaps facility-wide lights out isn’t such a bad idea.

But it might not be a whopper of an idea if only a hundred or so (being generous here) have been built worldwide in the past five years. Fact is, lights out is a concept that held broad cache some time ago. So futuristic. Almost science fiction. You can hear the background music. And that can have a strong gravitational pull. 

However, getting there is no mean feat. Lights out is an undertaking of epic proportions that goes to the heart of your company and how it operates. To begin, lights out is highly strategic. It’s not just another new facility. It is an entirely new facility with its own idiosyncrasies. That means a lights out plant or warehouse is unlike any other you already operate. Yet, it has to operate in a way that completely fits in and supports your overall strategic objectives and product flow. 

Getting there requires considerable planning across many segments of your company. It also means finding an equipment supplier with the big-picture, proven capability to make lights out work both functionally and strategically. Furthermore, lights out is not cheap. Many of the installs mentioned earlier cost tens of millions of dollars. Numbers like that get everyone’s blood flowing.

In other words, facility-wide lights out isn’t for everyone.

But it’s still a concept that people keep coming back to, resulting in a different approach to lights out. Today, many lights out discussions have gotten much smaller. Not talking small ball here. But instead of being suitable for an entire facility, those discussing the virtues of lights out now talk about it in certain departments or functional areas. It might be for only 10 or 20% of the entire facility. Or it could be more. In fact, the experts here figure if you can push lights out to 80% of your facility, you nailed it.

Can you imagine any single department at your place being lights out? Perhaps two or three departments even? Interesting idea. Clearly, it’s not going to happen without some real analysis, planning and investment on the part of you and many others. And it won’t happen in the next quarter. To go lights out even in a single department is a long-term project. Which brings us to the added bonus of the lights out discussion today. It’s a great what-if challenge to evaluate just how extreme automation might improve each department and functional area at your operation. Just the analysis alone is sure to yield new insights. And new ways of getting the job done, even if lights out never makes it to the floor.

So, don’t categorically dismiss lights out. You never know where your next bright idea may come from. Come to think of it, that’s a great jumping off point for next week’s blog when we dig into how to make your automation strategy a success

Our team of project managers, engineers, and analysts can assist and support you through your DC automation evaluation and implementation process from start to finish. Contact us today via phone (+1 856.727.1100) or online to learn more

Gary Forger is the former editor of Modern Materials Handling magazine and the Material Handling & Logistics U.S. Roadmap to 2030.  

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