Fade To Black The 1980s vision of "lights-out" manufacturing, where robots do all the work, is a dream no more.
By Christopher Null and Brian Caulfield

(Business 2.0) – It's been two decades since Roger Smith explained how robots--so reliable they could bolt up a transmission in the dark--would make General Motors as efficient as its rivals in Japan. But Smith's infatuation with so-called lights-out manufacturing quickly went the way of the Chevy Chevette; GM couldn't get its machines to work properly, even with the lights on. The paint robots often wound up painting themselves.

But the company that sold GM those robots--Japan's Fanuc Ltd.--is worth another look. Fanuc (for factory automation, numerical control) has spent the intervening years turning its own assembly line into the lights-out model Smith dreamed about. At this moment, in one of Fanuc's 40,000-square-foot factories near Mt. Fuji, robots are building other robots at a rate of about 50 per 24-hour shift and can run unsupervised for as long as 30 days at a time. When they stop, it's because there's no room to store the goods. Trucks haul off the new robots, the lights are cut, and the process begins anew. "Not only is it lights-out," says Fanuc vice president Gary Zywiol, "we turn off the air conditioning and heat too."

Lights-out is catching on in other kinds of factories: In Connecticut, ABA-PGT cranks out plastic gears for everything from printers to sprinklers; workers arrive in the morning to pick up boxes filled overnight. Air Products & Chemicals in Allentown, Pa., has begun remote-managing plants that chill and compress air into oxygen and liquid nitrogen. Some shops run unattended for weeks.

At Fanuc, the bot invasion is already moving beyond the factory floor. In 2001 the company opened an automated kitchen center that preps 2,000 meals for the human rank and file. The bots cook rice, pack lunch boxes, and wash dishes. They even wear rubber gloves. --CHRISTOPHER NULL AND BRIAN CAULFIELD