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Automation Solutions for Common Manufacturing Challenges

Rick Schultz
By Rick Schultz Aerospace Program Manager, FANUC America
Five-axis machining capability is crucial for all aerospace parts. (All images provided by FANUC America)

The aerospace industry is a unique manufacturing segment with production processes that have remained relatively unchanged for the past few decades. However, new solutions have the potential to transform the manual and labor-heavy methods traditionally used to produce airplanes more efficiently and consistently.

The major commercial aerospace companies output about 1,000 aircraft per year, but each aircraft requires up to 2.3 million parts. It’s easy to misunderstand the total scope unless one considers the massive number of manufactured and assembled parts per aircraft, as well as the complex materials and tight tolerances, which are the most challenging in the manufacturing industry.

The required certification processes, combined with the product lifecycles, make manufacturing changes challenging. Altering an existing aircraft design to improve manufacturability and enable automation is also extremely difficult, due to the lengthy and extensive safety and manufacturing reliability testing required. Existing production cannot stop and new concepts must be thoroughly tested and proven before implementation. Determining how to phase the new technology into these lines is another major inhibitor to new processes.

Ideas for Improvement

When COVID-19 emerged, the aerospace market was significantly impacted, and most r&d screeched to a halt. However, with air travel back to pre-pandemic levels and more attention turning to cost-effective methods to produce more airplanes at a faster rate, the opportunity to inject automated solutions throughout the production process is here.

There are also many “greener” and more efficient aircraft in development, which creates opportunities for new processes and concepts if the development teams work closely with the manufacturing experts and partners.

This photo from Aerobotix shows the F-35 mold in place.

Here are eight ways the industry can use automation to improve:

Drilling and riveting/fastening: Because almost all of it is currently done by manual processes, drilling and fastening account for about 60% of aerospace assembly labor costs. Workers using rivet guns common to aluminum fuselage assembly have the incredibly loud and strenuous job of mating hundreds of thousands of rivets to one aircraft. Even the fasteners used on composite fuselage sections are challenging for manual labor. Here, robots and automated equipment can have a tremendous impact on cost savings, as well as the ability to free up workers to do more ergonomically friendly tasks.

Sealant dispensing: Every part of an aircraft assembly must be sealed, which is an activity most often performed by a human crawling through access ports in potentially hazardous situations. New automated sealant processes using vision will enable much easier methods of production, especially applications for confined spaces such as inside a fuel tank.

Robotic trimming: Flexible robotic trimming solutions for cutting fuselage windows and access panels along with interior pieces are crucial to efficient aerospace manufacturing. New high-rigidity robots can make precise and accurate cuts, which result in less material wasted. For instance, many in the industry have already been using FANUC’s 2000iC/190S.

Paint/coatings: Having even and consistent coatings on aircraft skins is important for fuel savings. If excess paint is used, unnecessary weight is added, which translates to greater fuel consumption and costs. Paint robots can save thousands of pounds on the plane’s weight by offering a consistent automated solution, resulting in a smoother, more aerodynamic finish with significantly less paint application.

Inspection: Safety is always critical in aerospace manufacturing. Traditionally, inspection has been done almost entirely by manual labor. New advances in vision and other non-contact methods are essential for automating inspection for manufacturing and repair processes, yet many of these tasks can be automated with technology available today.

Data collection and tracking: From pylons to propellers and jet engine blades, everything must be tracked throughout the life of the aircraft. Most tracking today is heavily paper-based, but PLM and other IoT offerings can help automate these tedious but vital tasks that are prone to human error.

Virtual manufacturing and digital twins: Full aircraft manufacturing digitalization is linked to IoT/PLM component tracking. Previous aircraft development took decades, but digital factory simulation has reduced these development cycles. Look for products that can integrate and improve those factory/aircraft simulations. With the challenges to test and prove manufacturing processes in actual production, full digital twins and simulations with products such as FANUC’s RoboGuide and Dassault System’s 3DS tools can help design and test new automation concepts.

Five-axis machining and additive manufacturing: Additive helps reduce the number of individual components by allowing more complex geometries. All additive parts require post-machining/grinding, however, and the nature of these parts requires five-axis machining capability, as do many of those used in the jet engine and fuselage. Many existing machining processes are still using technology common in the 1980s. There have been major improvements in CAD/CAM and CNC to help improve flexibility and accuracy, and minimize the time to go from art to part.

Relationships Matter

Aerospace has a significant r&d cycle, so having a partner that will work with you for the long haul is one of the most important decisions a company can make. No matter the technology, a project is doomed to fail if a company can’t form a relationship that will last five to eight years or longer before moving a concept into implementation.

Product cycles are extremely long and new products take decades to deliver, so choosing a company with a solid reputation and global support and service is key. Companies that back their products for decades to the entire life of the product are much better aligned to the aerospace lifecycle needs than those that obsolete and end product support after only a few years.

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