To automobile mass-producers, automation in the aerospace manufacturing probably looks fundamentally immature. However, Boeing’s efforts in introducing robotics into 777 production at its widebody plant in Everett, Washington, 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 lean production processes.
The more recent adoption of flex-track drilling in the body and wing panels, automated floor drilling and wing painting equipment have all contributed to the company’s ability to seamlessly raise 777 production from seven to 8.3 early this year and cut the time it takes to build one of the popular widebodies from 49 to 48 days, according to Boeing.
“Our production system, and most production systems, rely on stability,” stressed 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. When we target our automation, that’s what we’re doing. We’re looking at what are the elements that allow us to provide that differentiation.”
For example, Boeing has used automated floor-drilling equipment installed last year on about fifty 777s for various customers, each of whose prescribed aircraft configuration requires different floor-panel arrangements. The machinery, said Clark, does the job three to four times faster 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.”
FlexTrack’s performance on the 777 has led Boeing to start testing the technology in about 20 other areas, added Clark, including parts of the 747 and 767.
The most recent robotic advance on the 777 reflects what Clark characterized as Boeing’s “global perspective” on automation and 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 decreased from about four-and-a-half hours to 24 minutes and quality improved by 60 percent, according to Clark. Two years later, Boeing has seen an 80-percent improvement in quality, he added, due to its ability to apply paint more precisely and evenly. As a result of its ability to apply the paint as thinly as specifications allow, Boeing has realized a weight benefit of between 50 and 60 pounds per wing set.
Addressing suggestions that the “efficiencies” driven by such automation amounts to a need for fewer workers, the 777 manufacturing director insisted that, rather, the switch created a need for a higher level of skill and knowledge. “It’s a transition of workforce,” said Clark. “What it really amounts to is putting the right tools in the hands of the mechanics. So, before, when where we had to have five or six folks up on high-gantry towers and a large, vertical booth, we’ve now got this system that basically is unmanned once the masking is complete. But those mechanics are now maintaining equipment [and] programming equipment…It’s a different role. It moves up to a higher technical role.”
Boeing 777 program vice president and general manager Elizabeth Lund counts the old vertical paint booth as “one of the limiting factors” in the company’s effort to raise production beyond seven per month. “There’s one way to pay back an ROI,” she said. “It’s not all labor; it’s capacity. The 777 had the ability to sell more to the market, and investments such as this allowed us to increase to 100 airplanes per year.”