Before the coronavirus pandemic upended normal life and essentially shut down commercial airliners, the aviation industry had a projected need for 40,000 new aircraft—planes, helicopters, air taxis, and unmanned aerial vehicles—in the next 20 years. The volume includes replacements for craft that age out of service after an average lifespan of 25-30 years and is on top of an approximately eight-year backlog.
If demand for flight resumes its previous level once restrictions related to the pandemic ease, the only way to satisfy the projected need is through increased automation, some industry experts said.
Unlike many other sectors, the aviation industry is one where manual labor is common because there are no current alternative manufacturing processes that are feasible. But considering Statista’s recording of year over year increases in demand from 2006-2019 for global air traffic passenger demand (the increases ranged from 2.4 percent to 8.1 percent, except for 2009 at the height of the Great Recession) and other factors, greater efficiency is mandatory if the industry is going to keep up.
Researchers are trying to figure out how to automate some processes, such as hand layup. But there are other automated measures that are currently available, including projecting instructions for assembly onto workstations and for automated sealant, fastening, marking and material handling processes.
Commercial aviation needs alone would require an effective doubling of production rates, said John D. Russell, chief of the structures technology branch at the Air Force Research Laboratory.
In addition to commercial planes, the military is exploring attritable aircraft that could be produced in the thousands.
Finally, the air taxi concept has been gaining traction from traditional aviation firms and companies like Uber and would require even more production.
“For any one of these cases individually, I’m hearing from my contacts in the industry that the U.S. does not have the capacity currently,” Russell said, cautioning that his information is from before the virus hit worldwide. “If all three come true at the same time, the industry is going to have to get creative about how to solve the capacity problem.
“The big alternative I’m hearing is the use of automation to increase productivity and throughput, especially for commercial aviation. Companies are researching any way automation can improve things, from part fabrication to assembly. I’m hearing the capital expense for automation is less than that to add new production lines.”
Russell said he would not be surprised to see the air taxi industry look offshore for production because vehicle price is likely to be a big driver for their business model. He’s doubtful we would see offshoring for commercial aviation because the industry would be likely to stick to established supplier relations due to the high skill level involved for the workforce. Obviously, offshoring would not be an option for any military vehicle, he noted.
Delivering 40,000 aircraft in 20 years would require producing 2,000 planes per year, which is much higher than deliveries before the pandemic.
A backlog in deliveries was created when the manufacturers couldn’t tool up fast enough to meet increased demand created by an uptick in air transport.
In addition, consumers now view air travel as a necessity instead of a luxury and have the means to pay for personal travel.
As a result, the commercial airlines expanded their offerings to afford those flight-hungry consumers flexibility in takeoff times.
Boeing had a backlog of 5,049 aircraft on May 1, while Airbus’ back orders had stacked up to 7,650 as of March 31.
Before the pandemic, a revival of competition between Boeing and Airbus was expected to result in record delivery of their highly popular narrow-body platforms and a 9.4 percent year-on-year growth in production in 2019. Boeing and Airbus were projected to produce more than 1,750 aircraft last year, up from 1,606 units in 2018, according to a mid-June 2019 news release from research and analysis firm Frost & Sullivan.
By August, though, others were cutting those numbers.
Global aircraft production had fallen by a quarter after the grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max jet in March 2019 following two fatal crashes, according to an article in The Guardian newspaper. ADS, the British aerospace lobby group, said 88 aircraft were delivered in July 2019, down 24 percent on deliveries during the same month the previous year, with the fall largely due to the slump in production of single-aisle planes like the 737.
By the end of last year, Airbus and Boeing combined had delivered 1243 aircraft.
The industry is acting to increase those numbers.
“The two largest commercial aircraft manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus, are both putting a lot of additional money into increasing the rate of production,” said Bill Bigot, vice president of business development for aerospace and defense at JR Automation.
Late last year in Hamburg, Germany, Airbus implemented its A320 Family fuselage structure highly automated assembly line.
The new facility features 20 robots, a new logistics concept, automated positioning by laser measurement, as well as a digital data acquisition system, the company said.
Besides the use of robots, Airbus is also implementing new methods and technologies in material and parts logistics to optimize production, improve ergonomics and shorten lead times. This includes the separation of logistics and production levels, demand-oriented material replenishment and the use of autonomous guided vehicles.
Around the same time, however, Boeing ended a four-year total automation effort at its Everett, Wash., factory that used robotic arms to insert fasteners on two main fuselage sections of its 777 jetliners and the 777X, opting instead for manual insertion by skilled mechanics.
Robots still drill the holes for the fasteners on an automated “flex track” system, resulting in a combination human-robotic process, according to published reports.
The effort may pay off in the end, though.
The failed efforts to use robotics taught Boeing some valuable lessons from its “first very deep dive into that type of technology,” Jason Clark, a Boeing vice president overseeing 777X production, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s taught us how to design for automation,” Clark was quoted in a November article.
The new method creates less wear and tear on workers since machines developed by Electroimpact Inc. handle one of the most physically demanding tasks of the fuselage assembly: drilling holes through metal, according to the Times article.
Also, “We redesigned portions of the build to replace rivets with less difficult forms of fasteners, further improving the ergonomics,” a company spokesperson said.
Not all measures to increase production include new lines and robots.
In its North Charleston, S.C., plant, Boeing: equipped mechanics with exoskeletons designed to reduce strain from sustained overhead work; deployed Bluetooth-enabled smart wrenches to ensure workers apply the correct torque to a nut, and use virtual reality for mechanics to test out new tools, according to Reuters.
Before any fuselage structures are shipped to Hamburg or Boeing’s factories in Washington State, they’re fabricated in automated composite manufacturing (ACM) processes, including automated fiber placement and automated tape layup.
ACM is suitable for medium or large parts like fuselages, wings and bulkheads that are also either flat or slightly contoured.
But small and medium composite parts are fabricated by hand layup, a very inefficient process that wastes a lot of material.
This is a big deal because these parts—clips, brackets, I-beams and access doors—can account for up to half the weight of a structure and number in the thousands for just one plane.
“Also, these parts that have to be hand laid up have to be cut down and darted, squeezed, what have you,” said Les Cohen, a composites consultant. “So that means your buy-to-fly ratio can be a factor of 2: if you’re working with a material that’s $40 a pound, it’s effectively $80-a-pound material.”
A team at the University of Southern California recently completed a demonstration project to automate layup with robotic arms.
While not automation, there’s still room to improve the materials used in plane construction.
The industry understands that the time it takes to autoclave parts-in-progress in debulking operations every few layers along with curing the final part takes a lot of time. Rapid-curing resins that have the properties of autoclave-cured parts but without the autoclave process are the answer but they’re not available, Cohen said. With investments averaging up to five years of time and an estimated $10 million in costs to develop new materials, with no guarantee they’ll be accepted, it’s understandable that this challenge is unmet, he said.
Industry 4.0, with its promise of greater productivity and quality, might also help to boost aviation production, but the industry has been slow to adopt the connected, digitalized and data-driven world of the fourth industrial revolution.
“I would say that stuff is just coming online now in production and delivering results. We’re very into this and we’re just to the point where we can roll this out at a program level and really give something to a factory that will absolutely affect their efficiency,” said Andrew Purvis, project manager for composite layup and automation at Electroimpact Inc. “When you start to get the data and you start crunching the numbers, you start to find a lot of gold in that mountain of data and a lot of times diamonds, things that really start to up your production.”
Ripe for automation is the quality side of production, said Purvis.
Electroimpact builds quality monitoring into systems with inspection technology that measure everything its AFP machines do as they built or print a part. The automatic inspection enables a process the company calls “continuous tuning.”
“The system is actually keeping itself in calibration by watching what it’s doing, and it continuously tunes itself,” he said. “Like an AFP machine or printer can look at the output with a camera or sensors and say ‘Hey, I noticed you’re starting to drift a little so I’m going to compensate’.”
At this point, adopting Industry 4.0 is more of an aspiration than an accomplishment in part due to cybersecurity and data management implications, said Mick Maher, president of the consulting firm Maher Associates.
“I don’t think the aerospace industry is picking it up any slower than any other industry,” he said. “I think Industry 4.0 is still too immature to turn over the reins to at this point. That said, automation is a key component of Industry 4.0. But just as there are parts of automation that are mature, such as tape placement, fiber placement, there’s still a lot of development required.”
Randy Rounkles, who’s been technical director for aerospace at JR Automation, was previously at Spirit Aerosystems where he was part of a team to deploy Industry 4.0 in early 2019.
Legacy target production at Spirit, a previous Boeing plant that was divested in 2005, was 21 aircraft per month based on its physical limitations and size, Rounkles said. Before he left, the plant’s monthly production was 57 aircraft, helped along with additional shifts, more employees and increased automation, specifically in fastening.
“One of the (last) projects before I left was the Industry 4.0 data collection on equipment utilization and that actually changed the face of that company in understanding what their equipment was doing and what it was capable of doing,” Rounkles said. “And it had a significant impact on the capital spend for future rates.”
There is research going on across the world on applying Industry 4.0 into aerospace manufacturing, but adoption is slow and current aircraft production is more analog than digital, AFRL’s Russell said.
“Companies are dabbling in digital to solve specific pain points, such asset tracking, but few manufacturers have a true enterprise-wide Industry 4.0 environment,” he said.
In terms of the current state of Industry 4.0 components, additive manufacturing is being looked at for tooling and non-structural parts, some processes are automated with the use of robots and, in regard to data analytics, R&D has been done to tie nondestructive inspection data back to the original models to understand the impact of manufacturing defects on part performance, Russell said.
In the video posted on YouTube, a Kuka robotic arm with an end-of-arm roller smooths the layer of pre-preg composite over the previous layer while two robots with grippers hold the material taut on either side.
How many hand layup artists have wished for this equivalent of a third hand that was demonstrated in the recording of the smart robotic cell?
The cell, and all of the technology behind it, is a demonstration project by Satyandra K. Gupta, a mechanical engineering and computer science professor at the University of Southern California, his colleagues and his students. They made the part based on suggestions by Boeing, Lockheed Martin and United Technologies, with the goal of assessing the feasibility of automation. Test results on parts made with their robotic automation were sent to the three companies, Gupta said.
“Right now, the key challenge everyone faces in aerospace is a shortage of labor,” he said.
With robotic arms doing layup, a human operator could supervise several cells at once, he explained. This would not only increase capacity it could possibly eliminate the debulking step in the part-making process while still ensuring quality.
That’s because, for a hypothetical critical part made of 100 layers of pre-preg, the part in process has to be bagged and undergo vacuum application every three (or five) layers to ensure there are no voids, for a total 33 debulkings.
But with robots, the pressure of the robotic tool can be measured, unlike the human hand, so quality is assured, and the process can go faster.
Automating the process not only makes it consistent and streamlined. Hand layup is a tedious job that’s physically demanding.
Working over two and half years, Gupta and his team integrated the robotic arms with end-of-arm tooling, computer vision, force sensing, artificial intelligence algorithms, advanced controllers and a human-machine interface. Their demonstration parts consisted of up to 15 layers of standard epoxy-based carbon fiber pre-preg ply.
The most challenging part of their work was integrating the real-time computer vision.
“You have to get the camera to see what defects are forming,” Gupta said. “(Now) if the robot sees a wrinkle sometimes it will pull the sheet this way, then that way … ”
When the cell encounters a problem it can’t fix, it alerts a human operator with a beeping sound, email or text.
But that’s only if necessary.
“Sometimes the whole process will go without a hitch,” Gupta said.
The addition Rego-Fix opened three years ago incorporates advanced energy and natural-resource conserving features. These include a special air-exchange ventilator system, wood pellet heating, multiple progressive air conditioning units, a “green” roof, and the use of both natural and sensor-controlled lighting.
The air-exchange ventilator system exchanges the air within the new building seven times per hour. It draws out waste heat from the manufacturing floor—heat generated mostly by the large air-compressor equipment necessary for the company’s machine tools. During the cold months, which account for the balance of the year, recovered waste heat is then used to warm incoming fresh air that the system draws from outside the building and circulates to the manufacturing floor.
Additionally, circulated water in a closed system helps keep manufacturing floor air compressors cool during operation. In the cooling process, the water becomes hot, and this heated water is then stored in a 1849-gal (7007-l) tank. This water is used to further help warm the building via a heating system built into the floors of the building’s office areas.
The facility also incorporates a 390-kW heating system that burns wood pellets as opposed to fossil fuels. The pellets are a by-product of the lumber and furniture-making industries, which are common in the area. The system consumes very small amounts of pellets because it operates as a backup to the other heating sources and is resorted to only when outside temperatures are extremely low.
During the summers, an energy-saving progressive-type, three-unit air conditioning system working together with the in-floor system and the air-exchange system, keeps the addition cool. The air-exchange unit draws heat out of the building, and cold water circulates through the in-floor system.
If the temperature within the building rises above a certain level, one of the units in the progressive air conditioning system will switch on to back up the floor system and the air-exchange unit. The air conditioning units are rpm-regulated, so if temperature levels continue to rise, forcing the first air conditioning unit to exceed its limit, the second air conditioning unit in the system will activate. And in turn if the second unit reaches its rpm limit, the third unit is activated. Once the building begins to cool, the individual air conditioning units will switch off in reverse sequence.
The exterior walls of the building are completely insulated. Unlike typical roof designs, the one Rego-Fix opted for is quite unusual with high insulating properties. Referred to as a “green” or “planted” roof, it is covered with soil that has actual sod growing in it. In addition to its insulation value, the roof captures rainwater that is then collected in a 13,200-gal (50,000-l) tank and is used for flushing toilets in the building’s restrooms.
Combined, all the heating and cooling features of the building provide steady and constant ambient temperatures within the manufacturing area. This has a critical manufacturing benefit. The constant temperature helps in maintaining consistent machine tool accuracy for producing the company’s high-precision toolholding systems.
For further energy savings, the new manufacturing building features many large, triple-paned insulated windows that let in abundant natural light. In addition, the windows are fitted with shades that automatically open and close. This is a major help in keeping the building cool in the summer. While the shades block a lot of heat they are perforated to let in light.
Where additional lighting is needed, LED-type energy saving lights, along with motion control activation, are used. There are no wall switches in the building, and lights turn on only when areas are occupied then switch off when they are not.
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