July 22, 2016      

Major tweaking of supply chains and assembly

When you have a backlog of aircraft orders like Airbus and Boeing-6700 and 5800 respectively-and you can only build and deliver on the order of 50 or so a month, it doesn’t take a genius to see that manufacturing needs to be badly sped up to meet demand.

Not only is assembly of the aircraft slow but also supply chains bringing in essential parts for final assembly are snail-like as well.

Case in point, Pratt & Whitney’s new geared turbofan jet engines, scheduled to reach 1,200 engines annually by 2020 and intended for the Airbus A320neo, were delayed from last fall until next January. So, forget about the glories of 1,200 engines until one can be fabricated and delivered on time.

And it’s not always engines or avionics seeing delays: lavatories and business class seats from US-based Zodiac Aerospace delayed production of Airbus’s new wide-body A350.

Any small or large bump in the supply chain seems to be enough to throw delivery dates off by months.

Much of the potential for delays is due to the sheer enormity and complexity of the supply chains. Boeing, for example, spends $40 billion on components and services from a mindboggling 1,500-plus suppliers. Parts alone represent 65 percent of the aircraft’s cost.

With parts and components slow to arrive from suppliers and with building planes, in many respects, still a hand-tools cottage industry, something needs to offer speed and productivity in automating aircraft production.

With a Boeing 737 MAX selling for up to $113 million, it’s easy to see the billions of dollars of profit also delayed because of glitches in either supply chain deliveries or aircraft assembly.

Send in the robots…and fast!

“In the old supply chain, not just in France but everywhere, we worked like artisans,” said Patrick Daher of French aerospace industry association to the Financial Times. “Now we have to become a manufacturing industry, with automation, robotics and standardization.”

Soaring demand for aircraft is forcing manufacturers to deploy robots in order to automate assembly processes that in many cases have eluded automation for decades. Even suppliers are automating to keep their supply flows on a more timely basis.

Airframe supplier, GKN Aerospace, depends on robots for welding and installing fasteners, machining and drilling wing structures, as well as for brand new technologies like covering 88-foot wing spars with carbon fiber.

In addition, much of GKN assembly work is trucked from workstation to workstation by automated guided vehicles (AVGs), i.e. mobile robots.

Chris Gear, GKN’s CTO, says that the robots are necessary “to meet demands for increased rates of production along with even finer manufacturing tolerances and higher levels of consistency.”

Working on lap joints: The robot drills and counter-sinks the holes, then inserts fasteners that hold panels together.

Early robot adopter Boeing has already automated large parts of its 737 and 777 jet lines. Last year, Boeing started using an automated system known as the Panel Assembly Line (PAL) to drill holes and install fasteners in wing panels of 737 jets at its Renton, Washington, plant.

Next up is SAL for Spar Assembly Line that will speed drilling and install bolts in the wing spars in about half the space used by an earlier generation of machine.

Then there’s FAUB for Fuselage Automated Upright Build” where robots are used to fasten 777 fuselage panels.

Boeing reports that its full-bore jump into automation “will cut the amount of ‘rework’ caused by production glitches, reduce injuries and support sharp increases in output at factories like Renton, where wings pulse through the assembly hall every 5.3 hours.”

“We are really pushing the envelope in terms of how to be more productive,” Pat Shanahan, senior vice president of supply chain & operations, told Reuters in a recent interview.

Faster production of commercial jets continues to drive profits at Boeing, which saw earnings jump 25 percent in the third quarter, according to the Associated Press.

Steel-collar workers

For more than a decade, KUKA has been supplying some of its robots for aerospace applications like drilling, riveting, polishing, welding and fuselage assembly, however, robot deployments in earnest to aerospace manufacturers ramped up beginning in 2013.

KUKA robots drilling and riveting fuselage sections together for Boeing speed up production but also reduce the need for workers to undertake tedious repetitive tasks that can cause injuries.

Wolfgang Meisen, a KUKA spokesman, says that “automation is not necessarily driven by costs. Rather, robots can undertake harmful, strenuous or dangerous jobs that require high precision. That frees humans ‘to focus on tasks the human is much better at due to his or her extreme flexibility, cognitive abilities, adaptability and ability to make decisions'”.

However, with the advent of artificial intelligence or AI, future steel-collar workers tasked with assembling aircraft may well bring even more to the job. The above mentioned cognitive abilities, adaptability and ability to make decisions are three of the most prominent being developed by robot manufacturers.

The next Boeing or Airbus robot upgrade could be very interesting.