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  • Richard Blow

Shining the light on Dark Factories

Is the key to modern manufacturing ‘smart’ rather than ‘dark’ factories?

The next decade in manufacturing will likely see accelerated progress towards fully automated factories. A number of Australian manufacturers are already looking into what becoming a “dark factory” could mean for their business moving forward. So, what is a “dark factory”? What does going dark really mean on the factory floor and is it a viable reality in the near future for Australian manufacturing?

Generally, a "dark factory", “dark manufacturing” or “lights out manufacturing” refers to a fully automated industrial production site where the creation of products is entirely done without any direct human intervention. Automatically controlled machines carry out the whole production process from the entry of raw materials into the factory to the delivery of finished products. Over the past decade we have seen significant growth in “Dark Warehouses”. As automation improves and becomes cheaper this production trend into will only speed up.

Machines Create Jobs and Replace Tasks

It’s not jobs which are replaced by automation – it is tasks within jobs. The implication is that while most jobs will change, they will not disappear. A study published by the McKinsey Global Institute came to the same conclusion: “More occupations will change than will be automated away.” At the end of the day, someone needs to program and supervise the machines, and they will require adequate care for the software they use, electrical and mechanical components. Humans will be required to innovate and manage the workflows of the devices.

Dark factories bring complete automation to the manufacturing processes. However, as efficient as automation on a large scale is, it’s expensive and can be inflexible. Manual assembly requires an enormous amount of individual skill. Modern manufacturing lines can require decision making and sensitivity that’s hard to replicate with algorithms and robots. Dark manufacturing not only comes with benefits for organisations, but it also has its fair share of drawbacks.

Dark Manufacturing Advantages

  • Eliminate human/operator errors

  • Safety (OHS): There are very few safety hazards in a well-designed dark factory.

  • Efficiency: The complete manufacturing process is automated with pre-determined programs driving the manufacturing process.

  • 24/7 operations: 24-hour production process that continues 365 days a year.

  • Energy consumption: Efficiency of operations improves, requiring less energy. No need for lights, air-conditioning etc.

Dark Manufacturing Disadvantages

  • High upfront capital expenditure: Specialised robots, software, and technicians. Potentially many multiple times more expensive than setting up a regular automated factory.

  • Ongoing maintenance and software costs.

  • Lack of flexibility: Well-defined steps must be programmed to achieve complete automation. The process cannot be changed quickly. It requires additional capital expenditure and downtime to change the production process.

  • Job displacement: Retraining staff, possible job losses.


Depending on who you talk to, Dark Factories are ether touted as a fantastic innovation and the way of the future or a mechanism to spell the end of thousands of jobs. But is the way forward really an either/or proposition?


A smart factory - the best of both worlds

Having a smart factory – not an entirely ‘dark’ factory – is about using automation to grow. Human input is still an ongoing necessity – through creating new ideas, implementing new processes, designing new jigs, keeping up to date with technology and nurturing customer relationships. There will always be a need for great workers in a smart factory. Alongside the robotic arms and midnight production runs, you’ll find designers, thinkers, and doers, bringing the factory floor into a bright new future.

7 Steps to automation

If you’re not sure where to begin or how to get the most from your manufacturing automation technologies, you’re not alone. Getting started can be overwhelming, especially for SMEs. The following checklist of automation best practices to help you start your journey on the right foot.

  1. Develop an automation plan: Before getting started, you need to identify automation opportunities and define where you want to go or what you want to measure or improve. (e.g. repetitive tasks could be a good place to start). You will use this goal to guide process improvements and capital investments. From there, you can break the journey down into smaller and more manageable pilot projects.

  2. Align your budget and your plan: Prioritising spend based on business requirements is the key to ensuring the right investments are made in the right places at the right time

  3. Establish a manufacturing automation champion: To maximise your return, appoint an automation champion who can oversee your strategy. A diverse, cross-functional team should support this project owner to ensure that use cases and solutions are fully vetted for purpose, feasibility, applicability, and pitfalls or roadblocks.

  4. Reinforce your IT infrastructure: Efforts to triangulate people, processes and intelligence will come up short if your company lacks the proper IT infrastructure. Your IT backbone needs to support uninterrupted connectivity, unimpeded information flow and adequate storage.

  5. Identify pilot projects: There’s no reason to go big right out of the gate. Start small with relatively simple processes that can be easily automated. Your Lean/BPI plan will make it easy to look for tasks that are repetitive, create bottlenecks, are difficult to fill, have high overhead or are prone to error.

  6. Optimize your existing equipment and automation technology: In many cases, there’s no need to start from scratch. Legacy equipment? Modernize your equipment with sensors and other capabilities. Outdated or overextended enterprise resource planning (ERP) software? Consider layering on applications to expand what your ERP can do for you

  7. Involve your employees in the journey: Your employees are your number one source of knowledge about current processes and opportunities for improvement. They understand your business and your customers. Staff retention should be a priority. Involving them in the planning process will be key to a successful implementation. At the same time, you need to be thinking about how to best upskill or multi-skill your staff to ensure your workforce is equipped with the appropriate skills for Industry 4.0.


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