“Lights out” cutting enables you to process your parts at all hours of the day, even during unmanned evening shifts.
A metal fabricating facility during the day is a noisy, bustling place. Lift trucks are zooming by, and CNC machines are cutting away. Production runs at full speed. But typically, in the evening, the machines are shut down and all grows quiet until the next morning. The machines could run longer hours, but the cost of keeping the facility staffed for a full late-night shift is not justified in today’s uncertain economy.
So how can a metal fabricator ensure that overhead costs stay low while production capacity keeps up with the order book? The answer is “lights out” manufacturing. In this scenario, a manufacturing facility relies on material-handling automation to move blanks of sheet metal or plate onto the cutting bed of a CNC machine, usually a laser cutting machine, and to remove the skeleton and cut parts after the cutting is done. The entire process repeats itself once the previous job has been removed from the bed.
In the most advanced lights-out manufacturing environments, a flexible manufacturing system (FMS) comprises a single or a group of CNC machines, a storage tower for raw material inventory, and a line controller to coordinate the delivery of the blanks, the cutting job, and removal of the parts. The FMS approach also usually entails more advanced part-sorting options, instead of simply dropping cut parts in one single area.
On the other end of the spectrum is the use of a loader/unloader. This is typically used for a single machine on which the automation simply loads one sheet after another. This arrangement requires that the blank be stacked on the loader in the order it will be needed.
Of course, nothing is totally infallible. Even for those companies with the most advanced lights out operations, the emergency phone call in the middle of the night to an equipment operator sometimes happens. A part might tip up and collide with the laser cutting head, or material inconsistencies may cause a cutting problem.
Advanced nesting systems can help prevent those scenarios and eliminate the late-night phone calls. Software features are designed to take steps to ensure potential collisions are avoided. Setting up a repeatable and consistent process is key. If done correctly, the manufacturer can schedule the work in advance and run the cutting machine over an entire shift—and even over an entire weekend with the right combination of FMS and nesting software capabilities.