Global Fastener News

2015 FIN – Robots to Install 50,000 Fasteners on Boeing 777s

February 06
17:58 2017

July 28, 2015 FIN – MEDIA SPOTLIGHT – One of the world’s largest robotics companies invented a new automated system to install 50,000 fasteners on the fuselage of each new Boeing 777.  Boeing is counting on robots to cut production costs.

The Puget Sound Business Journal reported on the testing the robot in an industrial park near Boeing’s Everett, WA, plant.

“There, orange robotic arms bend and pivot in a mechanized dance,” reporter Steve Wilhelm of the Business Journal described the test.

Today the fasteners are installed by hand.

Wilhelm describes the scene: “Twin robot arms mounted on the machine’s self-driven, wheeled platform will slowly creep along the inside of the fuselage. At the same pace, a crawler outside the fuselage will aim a corresponding arm at the plane’s exterior. The drilling, placement and completion of each fastener from the inside and outside robot arms will be perfectly aligned with each other for an instant, before moving on to be perfectly aligned for the next drilling and fastening moment.”

“Think of it like a sewing machine,”  Boeing vice president of 777 operations Jason Clark told the Business Journal.

The orange robots are engineered by Kuka Systems, the German company which engineered robots to build cars. Last year Kuka opened up the 30,000-sq ft facility in Everett.

Kuka Systems is a unit of Kuka AG, a German company that generated $2 billion in revenue last year.

The focus of Kuka’s Boeing work is the 777X, the upcoming wide-body jet with new engines and carbon composite wings.

Aerospace is different from Kuka’s automotive work. While 60 autos an hour can be produced on an automotive assembly line, the 777s are manufactured at a rate of 8.3 jets a month.

Part of that assembly process turns the fuselage upside down so workers can get access to one section at a time. “But robots, unlike humans, can work at any angle without discomfort,” Wilhelm observed.

So in 2013 Boeing and Kuka began a collaboration “to revolutionize the building of the 777.” Boeing calls the result FAUB – or “fuselage automated upright build,” which allow fuselages to stay upright during the entire production process, saving time and money.

The Kuka robotized drilling and riveting machine is nearly ready to produce planes.
Robots will replace some people, but with increasing production and opening a second 777 line in Everett means that nobody will lose jobs soon, Boeing executives told the Business Journal. Robot technology will relieve workers from some repetitive jobs.

However, Jon Holden, president of the Machinists District Lodge 751, expressed concern that “automation absolutely takes away the jobs we do manually. Those jobs are tough, hard and dirty — but we value those jobs, we don’t want to get rid of those jobs,” Holden told the Business Journal. “If anything, we’d like to make those jobs safer.”

Boeing’s Clark that the traditional riveting is “really hard on the shoulders and the body’s mechanics. We’d rather move mechanics into positions where they’re running equipment to do that kind of work.”

Boeing also is turning to automation to cuts costs. “Our imperative is to deliver on a record backlog of more than 5,700 airplanes, with an intense focus on profitability,” CEO Jim McNerney said.

The technology goal is to keep down costs and thus prices down on the upcoming 777X. The 405-passenger 777-9X, sells for $389 million.

Boeing competes with Europe’s Airbus, but also faces emerging challenge Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China, which is developing a competing aircraft to the Boeing 737.

Aerospace consultant Scott Hamilton of Leeham LLC said factory cost cutting is “very pivotal. Boeing has been extremely good about lean manufacturing; in some ways they were ahead of Airbus on that.”

Editor’s Note: Articles in MEDIA SPOTLIGHT are excerpts from publications or broadcasts which show the industry what the public is reading or hearing about fasteners and fastener companies.”

©2015 Fastener Industry News.  For information on reprinting this article email: FIN@GlobalFastenerNews.com

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