Skip to content

Picking Up the Pace in Aerospace Production

Pat Waurzyniak
By Patrick Waurzyniak Contributing Editor, SME Media

Higher production rates lead aircraft builders to deploy more automated guided vehicles and mobile robotics solutions to boost factory output

New automation solutions have aerospace production humming, with automated-guided vehicles (AGVs) and mobile robotics solutions helping aerospace and defense builders meet demanding production schedules for delivery of new commercial and military aircraft. To achieve production goals on big projects like the recently stepped-up Boeing 777X program, manufacturers increasingly deploy new automation both for building aircraft components and to speed up final assembly operations.

With intelligent, programmable AGVs, aerospace suppliers can reduce their reliance on time-consuming crane moves that typically have been employed to move large, heavy airframes and components throughout factories or in and out of workcells. In addition, mobile robots are more often being positioned on AGVs to bring the robot to the workpiece. Aerospace suppliers are using more robots to optimize and refine painting/coating applications, and in machining, grinding, deburring and inspection operations on the compressor blades used in turbine jet engines.

Feature 3 Aerospace Automation Fori Automation's 40-foot AGV moves 60,000-lb wing, 20130108_185730.jpg
A 40' (12.2-m) long automated guided vehicle (AGV) from Fori Automation moves and positions a 60,000-lb (27,216-kg) commercial jet wing between seven assembly stations.

“Robotic automation helps improve aerospace manufacturing in some traditional and nontraditional ways,” said Dave Masinick, account manager, Kuka Robotics (Shelby Township, MI). “Traditional robot automation usually deals with high product volume and fast cycle times. In aerospace, cycle time is still important, but final product output is significantly lower. What remains high is the number of operations required per product.

“The most significant example is drilling and fastening of sub-assemblies and final assembly of the airframe,” Masinick added. “Other traditional improvements include operational consistency for higher quality and reduction of rework, along with elimination of worker injuries due to repetitive motion trauma. Robots are being used to replace traditional machines for applications in automated inspection, composite lay-up and trimming/routering.”

Among nontraditional robotic automation, there is increased demand in aerospace manufacturing for mobile robotics, Masinick said. “Instead of stationary robots or robots on linear tracks, aerospace manufacturers are looking to move the robot to the work, rather than move the work past the robot,” he said. “This provides great flexibility in their product mix and eliminates ‘monuments’ attached to the floor that impede material flow through the facility.” For mobile robotics, Kuka offers its omni-directional vehicle (omniMove) to transport robots to work areas both through manual operator input as well as through guidance and factory navigation technologies.

Building on Automotive Automation

When the Great Recession hit automotive manufacturers hard, many supplier companies like Fori Automation Inc. (Shelby Township, MI) turned to aerospace manufacturing for new opportunities. Building on technologies long used in automotive, developers like Fori Automation began devising ways to apply that expertise to the aerospace world. Founded in 1984, Fori currently is in the process of validation and buying off of two AGVs with a capacity of 95,000 lb (42,750 kg) that will pick up a commercial aircraft wing with tooling, then drive it in and out of an autoclave, said Paul Meloche, Fori Automation vice president, sales.

Feature 3 Aerospace Automation Tooling Fixture Delivery.jpg
With the Tooling Fixture Delivery automated vehicle from Fori Automation, the J470 Center Wing Assembly for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter moves with high accuracy between drilling stations at Lockheed Martin’s assembly facility.

The wing AGV system offers a highly flexible, reprogrammable alternative to using cranes for moving very heavy, large aircraft parts. “This is a niche product that we’ve come up with which is a derivative of automotive technology we’ve used over the years for picking up and transferring parts throughout the automotive plants, most specifically a process in automotive called chassis marriage,” said Meloche. “We have a lot of patented technology that we use within our global customer base.” These AGVs are equipped with servo-driven lifts and drive/steers that can accurately and repeatedly position the AGV when decking the front and rear suspension, chassis and engine into an automotive vehicle, he said, then securing it either manually or automatically using robots.

When the company looked to transfer its technology from automotive about five years ago, Fori initially targeted aerospace with the AGVs, Meloche said. “We modified the capacities and capabilities of what we were currently building for automotive and brought it to market probably four or five years ago and it just took off. We were in a unique position because we’re a very technology-driven company, so we have many patents for propulsion and lifting, and vision systems for part ID and measurement.”

The first AGV that Fori Automation delivered for aerospace was its Tooling Fixture Delivery system used by Lockheed Martin (Bethesda, MD) for moving the center J470 Center Wing Assembly. Aerospace manufacturers need more efficient ways to move airframes in the plants to achieve throughput, Meloche noted. “In the case of Lockheed Martin, there’s 16 different cells where they’re doing drilling on the center section of the F-35 where the motor is mounted,” he said. “Typically in the past, they would bring the drilling to the part. In this case, they bring the part to the drilling, so it’s a very different process.”

A Fori-developed precision magnetic measuring device gages the intensity of the magnetic field and enables the vehicle to position itself at the assembly station to an accuracy of ±5 mm, with positioning repeatability of ±2 mm. The tooling and the F-35 center wing section weigh about 12,000 lb (5400 kg), and each time the tooling is moved to another drilling station, the AVG supports that tolerance. At each station, vertical stanchions with locking cone details clamp onto the underside of the tooling providing the rigidity required to maintain hole accuracy when being drilled by the autodrills. An AGV comes in beneath the tool and picks it up, then works through safety protocols before moving the tool out of one station and into another.

This type of automation for robotic drilling and other applications gives aerospace builders tremendous flexibility. “We work with a lot of the companies that provide the robotic drilling because they need to move the robot around that plant,” Meloche said. “The whole premise is providing flexibility, modularity, and increasing throughput. Reducing your dependence on overhead cranes in the plant is a driving force because of safety, the inefficiency of waiting for a crane and the safety concerns of lifting up your part over the top of other pieces. There’s a significant push in aerospace assembly to move away from overhead cranes. Having a floor-guided automated system provides more accuracy, without the need for a dozen operators and spotters to watch the unit go overhead on a crane, and is much more efficient.”

Most of the different AGVs built by Fori for aerospace will pick up parts—aircraft cockpit assemblies, wings, or fuselage components—that are already on fixtures which are lifted together by the AGV after the vehicle slides underneath. The AGVs have a 320-V Siemens control architecture and servomotors that are highly accurate and infinitely speed adjustable, Meloche said. “When you don’t have anything on top of an AGV and you’re moving down a clear aisle, you may want to go faster, but when you’ve got a 60,000-lb (27,216 kg) wing that’s tip-to-tail 60–65′ [5.6–6–m] long, you want to go at a very slow creep speed. You will have safety scanners on to prevent any collision, and the ability to program the speed based on where the AGV is, or what load it has on it.”

These AGVs are suitable to a wide range of industries, he added, including any heavy components including wind blades, power generators, and rail-car manufacturing, said Meloche, who calls these machines MTAVs, a Multi-Tasking Autonomous Vehicle. The automated vehicles, which follow a magnetic stripe on the factory floor, use Siemens PLCs and are easily reprogrammable for different applications. The Siemens hand-held HMI pendant handle includes an interactive diagnostics screen and ActiveX control software co-developed by Fori Automation with Siemens. Fori even developed its own traffic control software that monitors the AGV locations, AGV diagnostics and recharging status of AGVs and communicates with the plant manufacturing execution system (MES) software to direct AGVs to where they’re needed. “It’s very easy to program, and 100% of the controls are designed and built here, bought off and then shipped to the plant,” Meloche said. “Our goal is for the plants to be reconfigured on their own without needing to call us.”

Refining Painting Processes

Feature 3 Aerospace Automation Boeing ASM paint system.jpg
A Boeing 777X wing painted by two ABB IRB 5500-Aero robots. To speed production, Boeing turned to robotic automation to increase factory throughput on this high-demand commercial jetliner.

When called upon to boost 777X production, Boeing took a look at improving its airframe painting processes for the wings of the commercial airliner. With a goal of building 100 777X aircraft per year, Boeing turned to a new robotic painting system from ABB Robotics (Auburn Hills, MI) to eliminate a mostly manual process that employed 35–40 painters and required many time-consuming crane moves.

Part of Boeing’s lean push, the switch to robotic automation aimed to improve the flow of the wing painting operation in Boeing’s Everett, WA, manufacturing facility. “Boeing was looking to improve the throughput of the piece,” said Timothy Brownlee, senior account executive, ABB Robotics. “They would have to orient the wings in vertical and horizontal position, and that required crane moves from one orientation to another. They were seeking methods to reduce the flow. The wing now stays in a single orientation, and that translates to fewer crane moves.”

Using two lightweight ABB IRB 5500-Aero robots, Boeing was able to implement its ASM, or Automated Spray Method, that consolidated the process of painting the 106′ (32.3-m) long 777X wings into a single position with a 75% reduction in floor space in the entire process, Brownlee said, resulting in a 100% increase in throughput. The manual process took 4.5 hours to do the first coat, which now the robots accomplish in 24 minutes.

While the process includes some manual preparations including masking, the highly automated new system washes, applies a solvent, rinses and then puts two coats of paint on the wings, noted Didier Rouaud, paint process manager, ABB Robotics. “What we are doing is not just painting, but also sanding and washing the wings prior to the painting process. The robots spray some chemicals and cleaners on the wing and then it does a wet scrub,” Rouaud said.

The robots are very light six-axis robots coupled with a three-axis option to make it a nine-axis system, Rouaud said, with a floor rail system and a rotating tower.

Boeing’s biggest bottleneck previously was the wait times for crane moves. With the new system, production time is sped up to just 2.5 days instead of four days, Rouaud said, and quality has improved. “We are putting on exactly the right amount of paint,” he said.

There’s also a substantial improvement in the look of the paint finish. “When they are painted manually they appear very dry with the way the paint pools,” said Rouaud, noting the new paint has a wet, very shiny appearance.

Robots Required for Engine Operations

For certain high-precision aerospace processes, particularly for jet turbine engines, only robots can get the job done. “In jet engine production, especially in the leading edge profiling of the engine blades, using automated systems with robotics is the best way to do the job,” noted Chris Blanchette, manager, aerospace automation, FANUC America Corp. (Rochester, MI). “You can’t do it with people.”

Robotic automation is helping aerospace manufacturers improve throughput, quality, and get finer process control, he added. “Automation and robotics are really helping aerospace compete to meet these requirements to improve throughput.”

In July 2013, GE Aviation opened a new robotics R&D center at its Bromont, Quebec, Canada, facility that manufactures many components for GE’s aircraft engines, including the CFM56 engines for the Boeing 737 and Airbus 320 aircraft, and GEnx engines for the Boeing 787 and Boeing 747-8.

The company invested $61.4 million, including $8 million from the Quebec government, in the new Global Robotics, Automation and Instrumentation Center at the Bromont facility location, which is one of the most productive global sites operated by GE Aviation. The new R&D center is developing advanced robotic processes, software applications and intellectual property that will be exported to GE Aviation facilities around the world.

“We’re in the infancy stages of our deployment of automation. If you look at the way we make engines today, we’ve barely scratched the surface of opportunities,” said Alain Ouellette, manager, Global Automation and Instrumentation R&D Center. “We still have multiple areas to explore. If you look at automotive, they installed the first robots in 1961. Today, you cannot find an auto facility without them.”

While aerospace automation is perceived as low volume, Ouellette said that is changing. “The automation technologies have evolved over the last 25 years, the complexity has been reduced, and today we need to contemplate deploying more automation. We want to compete with other aircraft engine manufacturers, and we are at the point where some of the engines cannot be built without automation.”

A developer of robotic vision and inspection solutions, AV&R Aerospace (AV&R; Montreal, Quebec, Canada) is an integrator of FANUC robotics and a developer of robotic leading edge and trailing edge profiling machines for turbine engine blade manufacturing. The company is working with the GE Aviation Bromont facility on many projects, noted Eric Beauregard, AV&R Aerospace CEO.

“We’re specializing in aerospace, mostly in turbine jet engine or for energy power generation,” Beauregard said. Many of the systems the integrator develops are in robotic metal removal—machining, grinding and deburring—as well as in the robotic visual inspection systems for complex gas turbine engine blades. “A 3D visual inspection is in development,” said Beauregard, noting that AV&R Aerospace’s customers include all the major makers of jet engines including Rolls Royce, Pratt & Whitney and GE.

“We did many different projects in cooperation with GE there, one of which is the leading edge profiling system,” he added of the Bromont GE facility, which has more than 120 robotic cells. “The system reads the leading edge with a laser, and based on that feedback profile it gets, it adjusts according to the CAD model. It meets the tolerance and the shape that GE wants to make that part efficient. These parts are all forged compressor blades, then they need to profile it, put a shape on it.”

The Bromont facility aims to increase productivity on the engine blade manufacturing, noted Ouellette, and the robots also help with improving safety aspects for workers. With the automation, variation on the parts is dramatically reduced. “A robot will allow you to go to less than ±5 thousandths on part positioning,” Ouellette added. “If you put in multiple operators in manual production you introduce even more variation than with a single operator. If you can eliminate that significant source of variation, it’s a huge impact on quality.”

This article was first published in the March 2014 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.

  • View All Articles
  • Connect With Us

Related Articles

  • Smart Manufacturing

    Robotic Returns

    April 3, 2024
    A few not-so-tall tales of how machine shops gain a competitive edge through automation
    By Kip Hanson - Contributing Editor, SME Media
  • Workforce Development

    New On-Ramps to Workforce Development

    April 1, 2024
    There are two ways to tackle the skilled labor shortage: automate wherever possible or encourage a new generation to consider the manufacturing industry. Bowden Manufacturing of Ohio does both, with the help of industry partners such as Absolute Machine Tools.
    By Absolute Machine Tools, Inc.
  • Automation

    Unfreezing Manufacturing with Data-Driven Agility

    March 27, 2024
    Manufacturers require a deep understanding of operations to make quick, data-driven decisions and keep production running in the face of unpredictable challenges.
    By Chris Balow - Director of Product Management, Plex by Rockwell Automation Inc.

Webinars, White Papers and More!

SME's Manufacturing Resource Center keeps you updated on all of the latest industry trends and information. Access unlimited FREE webinars, white papers, eBooks, case studies and reports now!