Automation in the aerospace industry remains fundamentally immature, and Boeing’s efforts in introducing robotics into 777 production might look like baby steps to the world’s automobile makers. But at Boeing’s widebody plant in Everett, Washington, those steps have translated into some considerable efficiency gains following the company’s transition some eight years ago to a moving, U-shaped assembly line and simultaneous implementation of so-called lean production processes.
The more recent adoption of flex-track drilling in the body and wing panels, automated floor drilling and wing painting equipment has allowed Boeing to raise 777 monthly production to 8.3 from seven early this year and cut the time it takes to build one of the popular widebodies to 48 days from 49, according to the company.
“Our production system, and most production systems, rely on stability,” emphasized 777 director of manufacturing Jason Clark. “What we wanted to create was the right balance of stability from a production standpoint as well as the ability for the customer to differentiate their product.”
For example, Boeing has used automated floor drilling equipment installed last year for about fifty 777s in various customer configurations, each of which called for a different floor panel arrangement. The machinery, said Clark, does the job three to four times more quickly than conventional methods.
Another piece of automated equipment, a machine designed by Boeing and built by Mukilteo, Washington-based Electroimpact called FlexTrack, drills holes in fuselage panels. Not only does the system reduce the need for manual drilling, thereby effecting ergonomic benefits for workers, it dramatically mitigates defects such as tool marks, gouges, misaligned holes and bad countersinks.
“The day we opened the box and put it on the airplane…we got a 93-percent improvement in hole quality,” said Clark. “I’m now running at about a 98-percent improvement.”
The most recent robotic advance on the 777 involves a 19-axis painting process carried out on machines manufactured by Zurich-based ABB. Used to paint and seal 777 wings, the robotic sprayers “cut” in 18-foot lengths, while hand-spraying techniques allow for cuts of no longer than four feet, explained Clark. As soon as Boeing began using the ABB machines, painting time dropped to 24 minutes from about four-and-a-half hours and quality improved by 60 percent, he added. Two years later, Boeing has seen an 80-percent improvement in quality, which Clark attributes to more precise and more even paint application. Now able to apply paint as thinly as the specifications allow, Boeing has realized a weight benefit of between 50 and 60 pounds on each pair of wings.