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Shining a light on the dark factory trend

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It’s likely you’ve heard the term ‘dark factory’. For some it conjures surreal images: robot arms moving deep into the night, smart machines thinking for themselves replacing the need for workers and a massive, whirling production floor the size of several city blocks.
The reality is likely to be quite different. As we’ve discussed before, the factory of the future will be full of opportunity for everyone. It will create new and better jobs for workers. It will allow toolmakers to hone specialised skills and be successful within their niche. And, they will give even small factories a chance to remain competitive for years to come. 
Essentially, we all know the importance of an experienced and skilled machine operator. Their knowledge of your customers, complex tool geometries and design, manufacturing processes, and the market will never be replaced by automation - in fact it will be enhanced.
So, here’s what we think is the truth about dark factories.
Dark factories are smart factories

A dark factory – also known as a ‘smart’ or ‘lights-out’ factory – uses new technology to run for periods without an operator. Through automation, manufacturers are able to run their machines, unmanned, day and night, without compromising on the quality of the output. Where humans would previously need to oversee each machine in the production line, now the equipment performs tasks with precision and minimum waste.
These factories are not devoid of human life – they have just moved it around. The dark factory is full of people with time to find better, smarter ways to work. Instead of taking on one repetitive task, employees are able to move to more rewarding jobs. They can analyse and interpret in ways machines still can’t, using data to better understand how to improve systems and processes. Others are now looking beyond the business, helping to identify competitive advantages and new technology that’s coming down the line.
What’s actually happening is not the darkening of the factory, but the changing of skills. Where automation has taken away the need to know how to grind specific tools (replaced by library of plans) or use specific machines, it’s also created new opportunities for upskilling workers. The precise measurements a machine can take, coupled with the problem-solving skills of staff members, means your factory is actually better than ever. 
ANCA customers are already benefiting

We’ve been able to see first-hand how beneficial a dark or smart factory could be. Over the last few years we’ve been collaborating with Swiss toolmaker Fraisa, a family-owned business offering a complete range of solid round tools with a full-service including logistics, customised tooling and recycling. We designed a new application to ensure grinding stability and a level of precision they had never had before. The result is a machine that can run for 50 hours unmanned, delivering the highest-quality tapware with full connectivity to Fraisa’s ERP system, allowing for continuous improvement.
With this customised automation solution, ANCA helped Fraisa to reduce production costs by a massive 50 per cent. But it hasn’t come at the cost of its people. According to Fraisa’s CEO Josef Maushart, they “have a more engaged and skilled workforce who can focus on more value-added work rather than just monitoring machines.”
When we collaborate on projects, we’re developing new technology that improves manufacturing in every way. Unmanned grinding is safer, with less room for human error and fewer risks. It works on precise plans, so each product is created exactly as the first one in the batch. Measurements and ongoing data analysis mean factories will be able to order only the materials they need, and supply exactly what the customer demands.

You can be planning for your smart factory already

Your future factory will use automation to maximise success through more efficient systems, access to better information and stronger relationships with customers. While it may seem a long way off, you can be planning for it already.
Many machines can be retrofitted with software and accessories, while tool plans and libraries can ‘teach’ new blueprints almost instantly. You can already be looking into what’s available for your current machinery and thinking about how you might specialise in your niche. Staff no longer need to learn how to grind new tools, instead using their time to better understand what customers are looking for and adjusting production accordingly. 
Having a smart factory – not a ‘dark’ factory at all – is about using automation to grow. There is still space for human intervention – through creating new ideas, implementing new processes, keeping up to date with technology and nurturing customer relationships.
There will always be a need for great workers in a dark factory. Alongside the robotic arms and midnight production runs, you’ll find thinkers and doers, bringing the factory floor into a bright new future.



29 April 2021