In the manufacturing industry, the term “lights-out” refers to a process that is fully-automated, with no humans involved. The term refers to the idea of a factory staffed completely by robots. With no humans in the factory, you could even run the production line with the lights turned off, because robots don’t need light to be able to work. The benefits of lights-out manufacturing seem obvious. Robots make fewer mistakes and complete their work more quickly and more efficiently than human workers. As a result, the finished products are produced faster, cheaper, and with higher quality. Lights-out factories also save on electricity costs and climate control -- without fragile humans in the mix, there’s no need to keep the lights on or the temperature down. Instead of limiting production based on an 8 hr/day work schedule, production can run 24/7.
So, will we ever get to “lights-out construction”? While the trend towards prefab and modular components has already moved some onsite assembly work into factories, the reality is that a large amount of skilled labor is still required on job sites, even sites that make extensive use of modular construction. It’s unlikely we’ll be seeing any lights-out construction sites any time soon. But even if we can’t achieve full lights-out construction, steps taken towards that goal can create measurable benefit. Rather than lights-out being an all-or-nothing measure, why don’t we start talking about partial progress towards the goal? The COVID-19 crisis and subsequent social distancing policies have forced construction firms to adopt new ways of working to keep workers safe. From moving the portable toilets 6’ apart, to dividing workers up into separate shifts, firms are finding creative ways to continue to make progress while safeguarding the health and safety of their employees. What is becoming evident is that the fewer people who need to be on site, the safer that site is for everyone. The more workers can leverage robots to augment their productivity, the better their own working conditions will be. Reducing the number of people on the job site also benefits operating costs. Imagine needing to rent fewer portable toilets. Or having less contention for the man-lift. With fewer people on site, there will be fewer accidents and less missed time due to injuries -- which will also reduce workers’ comp premiums. Lights-out construction is a process of continuous improvement, not a binary choice. Reducing the number of people on job sites is a goal worth aiming for. What other benefits do you see from having fewer people on job sites?