Airplane Makers Automate to Meet Surging Demand
Boeing and Airbus use robots, drones and exoskeletons in quest for productivity gains
U.S.-based Boeing Co. BA 1.64 % and Airbus Group EADSY 2.67 % SE, its European rival, have racked up record orders—and production backlogs—over the past several years, thanks to booming demand from global airlines. Now, they have to deliver all those planes.
To meet the challenge, they are increasingly relying on robots, drones and human workers who wear powered exoskeletons to help them ramp up production in what industry executives say is the aerospace industry’s largest-ever peacetime expansion.
The same march toward automation is sweeping across the manufacturing sector. But for Boeing and Airbus, the sense of urgency is heightened by years of promises made to new customers.
This weekend, many of those customers will descend on an airstrip southwest of London ahead of Monday’s kickoff of the Farnborough Air Show. As Boeing and Airbus executives compete for new commitments from buyers, they also will be working to show that previously ordered planes are on their way.
“It is not just about churning out more aircraft. We have got to make sure all that opportunity gets converted into profit and cash,” said Airbus Chief Operating Officer Tom Williams.
Boeing and Airbus are giving their production systems the biggest makeover in more than a decade. Until recently both companies made jetliners largely by hand; but industry executives are learning from the high-volume automotive industry.
Already, aerospace companies are beginning to reap earnings improvements from automation, said Mr. Captain. Industrywide revenue rose about $30 billion last year without meaningful changes in employee levels.
New production technologies that plane makers and their suppliers are putting in place will help accelerate productivity gains, he said, though it may take a few years for them to take effect. Among the side effects: a boom in patents related to production systems, as both companies seek to protect any competitive edge.
Boeing’s new flagship, its 350- to 400-seat 777X, due in 2020, features new carbon-fiber wings pioneered on its smaller 787 Dreamliner. A majority of its research and development spending on the plane was aimed at how to automate the manufacturing of the wings, said Bob Feldmann, the program’s vice president and general manager.
The company built a 1.3 million-square-foot facility at its Everett, Wash., campus. Inside are high-speed robots that lay carbon-fiber tape and automated vehicles that ferry wing components around the factory.
Starting from scratch turns out to be easier than adapting the new automation to existing facilities. Boeing today is struggling to install robotic drilling machines for its current-generation 777 jetliner.
“I’ll be really blunt with you. It’s not easy,” said Jason Clark, vice president of 777 and 777X operations at Boeing. The company initially had hoped to have the new system for assembling aluminum fuselages up and running by August or September, but now says it will be pushed into 2017.
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“The price point of technology in automation is coming down rapidly. So we are at the cusp of a point where we can do things in aerospace significantly differently from what we have done in the past,“ said Mr. Williams, the Airbus operating chief.
At its Broughton facility in Wales, where Airbus makes the wings for its planes, robots are being introduced that cut production time to six days from 10 days. They will eliminate about €60,000 ($66,759) in recurring costs to make a wing, Mr. Williams said.
The production increases at Boeing and Airbus are forcing suppliers to automate to keep pace. Eric Shultz, head of civil aerospace at British engine-maker Rolls-Royce Holdings RYCEY -1.54 % PLC, said the company is investing heavily in automation at its production sites. The company now builds complex turbine blades that aren’t touched by a human in the process, he said.
Where manual labor is still required, Mr. Williams said, the company is seeking a raft of new tools to help get planes out the door fast. It has started using drones for external inspections of planes, and it has devised a mechanical exoskeleton to boost the strength of workers who bore holes so they can more easily lift the 12-kilogram drill required for the job. The device should allow workers to better handle the higher workload from increased production. It can also help retain aging but skilled employees who might normally have to seek out a less-intensive job.
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