On March 13 this year, thousands of Boeing employees gathered at the company’s Renton, Wash., factory to celebrate the 10,000th 737 to come off the production line. It broke the Guinness World Records title for the most produced commercial jet aircraft model. It took four decades for the company to reach 5,000 planes back in 2006 and just 12 years to reach the 10,000 mark thanks to growing market demand and higher production rates.
Boeing has said publicly that will increase its current rate of 47 airplanes per month to 52 a month this year. It has more than 4,600 planes still on order fueled by the sales of the newest version of the 737: the 737 MAX.
Certainly manufacturing automation systems are playing an essential role at Boeing and its suppliers to meet this intense demand to push production rates higher.
As a builder of flexible manufacturing systems and developer of manufacturing management software, there are notable trends to report.
The most significant one involves adding functionality into the cell or FMS. No longer are FMS systems only comprised of two or more CNC machine tools, pallet stacker, load/unload stations and a master controller. They are integrating robotic deburring stations, parts washers and even CMMs – functions that are typically considered secondary operations. It’s almost like they are mini factories themselves with only toolmaking, assembly and shipping done elsewhere in the plant.
Among all the new capabilities within an FMS, it is automating the part deburring task that is causing the most excitement among our customers. Conventionally, parts are taken to the “deburring department” where the burrs and sharp points on all parts are removed, traditionally by hand. I often see time cut by at least 50% with consistent, compliant robotic tools, whether they are of the pneumatic or electric spindle type.
Each class of robot has its place and nuanced expertise depending on the part application and the speeds and feeds desired.
For example, a pneumatic robot is suitable for a blend of surfaces while an electric spindle type is ideal for crisp known chamfers.
A function that goes hand in hand with part deburring is part washing to remove the dust and swarf from surfaces and interior cavities.
This is remarkably easy to do by simply connecting an automatic part washing machine. Further, when part deburring and washing are integrated into the cell and fully automated, there may be occasions when the part goes back into the machine tool, if it makes sense in the process or part design, to perform certain operations after a round of deburring.
Bringing in more measurement capability within the FMS is also increasing in smart cell configurations, beyond probing in the machine tool’s work area.
With a shopfloor-designed CMM in the cell, dimensional workpiece data can be fed back to the machine tool control while the part is being cut. Should the data ping that the part is trending toward an out-of-tolerance condition, the signal is sent to the machine tool control, which makes the correct toolpath offset immediately.
Adding functionality into cells and FMSs that are machining aerospace parts will become increasingly practical as developers of the equipment and software dedicate their efforts to automating their processes with open source connectivity.
The time efficiencies, quality improvements and labor safety benefits are too compelling to ignore, especially considering the current high demand for completed airplanes.