Reposted from Puget Sound Business Journal Nov 6, 2013, 2:54pm PST UPDATED: Nov 6, 2013, 3:13pm PST by Staff Writer- Steve Wilhelm
A lot more robots, and a lot fewer people, will be driving Boeing’s future 777X production line in Everett, if the proposed contract extension is approved by union members Nov. 13.
Behind the scenes Boeing has been preparing a turn toward much greater use of automation, as a way to increase quality and lower costs, and possibly buffer the company against any labor unrest further in the future.
German automaker BMW’s highly robotized factory in Munich is the benchmark for Jason Clark, 777 director of manufacturing, and he held that up as a model during a tour of Boeing 777 assembly in May, before the Paris Air Show. He said a Boeing leadership team visited the Munich factory and Kuka, a leading German builder of manufacturing robots, in 2012.
“We now know to build airplanes in a very traditional method, but when it comes to automated systems, a lot of other companies already have gone through a learning curve in adapting automated processes. We want to take advantage of that,” he said.
Currently, nearly 90 percent of the Boeing 777, the company’s largest twin jet, is built essentially by hand, Clark said, adding that this is the opposite of the BMW plant, where 95 percent of each car is assembled by robot.
“Within five to 10 years, you’re going to see a remarkable difference in how we do airplanes, how we assemble airplanes,” he said, adding that some of Boeing’s suppliers “are well ahead of us.”
Boeing has been testing new assembly tactics outside the production environment of the Everett factory, in particular in a leased facility in Anacortes, described in an August story in The Seattle Times.
One retired Boeing executive told the Puget Sound Business Journal that a key area of Boeing research is developing ways to assemble fuselage sections on end, not horizontally, so that workers and automated equipment will gain easier access to the surface for drilling and fastening.
In addition, it’s widely rumored that Boeing will be developing a second and larger building in the Bothell area, where it will be able to lay out the entire 777X line, get the machines running, and then transplant the line into the Everett assembly building when the assembly bay, possibly the temporary 787 surge line, is available.
“They can keep the existing production line going, go down in Bothell and lay out things thing on the floor, simulate whatever they want to do. As soon as the surge line is done, they can move the production line to Everett, put it up permanently,” the retired executive said.
While Boeing spokesman Mike Tull confirmed the existence of the Anacortes facility, he declined to add more specifics, saying it was only for “program development work.” He said he was “not familiar” with plans for another facility to develop an automated production system.
Boeing’s Clark said that while any company can buy robotic equipment — such as from the German robotics leader Kuka — Boeing’s strength is that it knows how to instruct those robots to build aircraft.
“How it is applied is the differentiator,” he said about robotization, adding that Boeing has already used the motions of human painters to tell robots how to paint current 777 wings. “We’re taking those same learnings and we’re programming it into the automation. If you don’t know how to do it, you can’t program it in.”
The robotic wing-painting facility, opened just this year, is large enough to also paint the longer 777X wing, he said.
Clark doesn’t expect a robotized 777X line would look just like an robotized auto line, because the BMW line runs at a much faster pace, which makes it cost-efficient to robotize even very complicated maneuvers. For instance, the line for the BMW 5 Series at one point uses about 16 robot heads to build the frame, while Boeing might still have people work on very complex parts of the airframe, he said.
While the 777 line is currently swarming with people with their hands on the aircraft, people have a very different role on the BMW line, Clark said. The people there are running the machines and ensuring the equipment is working properly, and the parts are all fed automatically.
In addition to the wing-painting system, Boeing has started using a “flextrack” automated system, which precisely drills holes in the fuselage skin for fasteners. That system, built by Mukilteo-based Electroimpact, created a 93 percent increase in quality the first time it was used, he said.
A big goal for improved and less people-intensive 777 assembly is to have the fastening holes on parts drilled so precisely that they can be put together without the expensive and timing consuming use of tooling to hold the sections in place.
Clark said the pressure to automate is being felt throughout the established aerospace industry, as well as by up-and-coming competitors like the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or Comac.
“I do know they are investing heavily in automation as well, just as Airbus is investing heavily,” Clark said about Comac. “We are making sure we’re keeping pace; we’re also developing concepts to move to the next level as well.”