Boeing's Australian aerostructures plant works on advanced composite, robotic processes
“We have to be the best at getting better,” says Michael Dickinson, managing director of Aerostructures Australia, the largest Boeing manufacturing site outside of the U.S.—and one located in a country presenting considerable cost challenges for aerospace. With a currency and wage structure driven high by Chinese demand for minerals and 22 years of uninterrupted economic growth, Australia is facing a general decline in its secondary industry, a sector that has never been one of its strengths. Indeed, stories of struggling Australian manufacturers are so widespread that Boeing's evident success at its Melbourne composites plant comes as a surprise to locals.
Part of Boeing's answer is commonly seen in aerospace manufacturing in high-cost countries: Boeing Aerostructures Australia specializes in certain types of parts and uses advanced manufacturing technology that countries with cheap labor and lower skills have not widely adopted—or at least not yet. Hence the other element of Boeing's Australian strategy: The plant has a well-staffed research and development center that is tightly integrated with the factory and tasked with supplying it with technology to keep it ahead of the game, as well as serving Boeing operations globally.
The manufacturing operation may owe its continued existence to the R&D center, which devised the current advanced technology used at the site, a proprietary method of resin infusion with which the factory is making the trailing edge surfaces of thewithout autoclaves. For the future, the R&D center is working on expanding the application of resin-infusion production, especially by making more complex shapes with it, while also adapting inexpensive industrial robots to difficult aerospace work.
Other focuses of development include better resins and new methods of heating them. Although plant managers will not say so, there are strong reasons for thinking that the forthcomingwill exploit some of the new technologies from here.
Fully 14% of the staff of 1,700 of Boeing Aerostructures Australia are engineers, most of them working not in the factory but in R&D. That includes a team of 30 engineers focusing on long-term developments that are years from practical application. Importantly, the development engineers usually come from the factory. Michael Edwards, general manager of the R&D operation, the Melbourne Technology Center, emphasizes that it could hardly stand alone without a factory. To fully understand their tasks, production engineers need easy access to production work. That is especially true when the task is improving a current process. So the R&D center and factory support each other.
Making composite parts without autoclaves is a developing global trend, and it seems likely that Boeing's facility here will progressively move all of its production to that process. Heat is an unavoidable part of making parts of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic—it is needed to cure the resin—but the pressure that demands an autoclave is unnecessary if the resin can be thoroughly infused between the fibers before heating, as is done by Boeing's method here and similar processes elsewhere.
The parts are cured in electric ovens, which cost about a tenth as much as autoclaves of the same size—say, $2 million instead of $20 million. Being inexpensive, they represent less of an obstacle to changing designs for larger pieces; it is not hard to justify installing a bigger one. All 787 parts made here are cooked in ovens. The R&D center is looking at ways of heating composites without ovens, says Edwards, declining to elaborate. Another Australian composites parts maker, Quickstep, has an out-of-autoclave composites process that heats and cools parts with glycol rather than in ovens (AW&ST Sept. 6, 2010, p. 52).
Like other researchers, Boeing's here are looking at applying resin-infusion composites to more complex shapes. During a visit to the plant in August, Aviation Week saw a full-scale sample 787 wing skin with integrated stringers, an alternative to a structure built up with a separate skin, stringers and fasteners. It was made with resin-infusion technology—in fact, it probably could only be made that way—but represented work that the company had done several years ago. Photography was not allowed and no samples of the latest achievements were displayed. Edwards says the technology could be put into production this decade. That suggests it is a candidate for the 777X.
In Japan, Kawasaki Heavy Industries and compatriots Mitsubishi and Fuji have installed some of the world's largest autoclaves for their 787 work, which includes the main structure of the wing. But another Japanese company, Nippi, is using resin-infusion technology that it says has already reduced costs by 30% from the level of autoclave product; it aims to eventually bring the cost down to 50%. Nippi estimates that complex shapes made integrally can be 10% lighter than those built up with fasteners (AW&ST Nov. 26, 2012, p. 37).
Melbourne's prospects for involvement in the updated 777 will depend on how its structure varies from the current versions, says Dickinson. Almost certainly, that means it will depend on how much composite is introduced and whether the applications suit the current and imminently applicable technologies of Boeing Aerostructures Australia. Since staff from Australia are working on 777X studies, the local technology appears to be relevant.
That may also include the resins that the plant here is working on. Edwards says only that they would offer greater strength, lower cost and faster curing.
Autoclaves here are used only for earlier programs, the current-production 777 and 737. The technology employed on the 737, from the 1990s, is probably no longer difficult in the global industry. Dickinson says it eventually may be a candidate for transfer to other plants, presumably suppliers. Moving out of technology as it becomes very widely used elsewhere is part of the long-term strategy for the facility here.
Another technology that could be available on the 777X or, potentially, revised processes for earlier programs, is light robotics. The global aerospace industry is increasingly accustomed to employing enormous and enormously costly machinery that performs work with greater precision than people can achieve manually, with the same result every time and saving the cost of labor. Boeing Aerospace Australia believes it is a leader in the trend to obtain such results much more cheaply with common industrial robots that the automotive industry, for example, may use, and that aerospace already uses for less demanding tasks. At maybe $500,000 each, plus the same again for adaptation, they offer considerable savings over a bespoke machine that could easily cost $10 million.
One function that the engineers here are working on is automatic laying of the fiber onto molds. Common industrial robots are not as precise in their operation as the most advanced aerospace manufacturing machinery, however. And even the casual observer can see that a machine no bigger than a horse, and maybe as small as a child, will lack the physical reach of a bespoke installation bigger than a house. Applying common industrial robots therefore means adapting them, as well as the process and part design, Edwards says. Modification of the machine includes fitting it with an advanced working head for contact with the part.
The plant here has 14 ordinary robots now, but they are employed traditionally. One of their functions is drilling, the sort of work for which such machines are already widely used. Here, the process was developed for the 787 and then applied to the 737.
Another future robotic function is repairs to composite structures, especially sanding, which machines could perform more precisely than people and without risk to human health. A particular challenge is to make the robots adaptable to the many possible locations of damage on the aircraft. Robotic repairs could include fixing parts found to have been manufactured imperfectly.
Meanwhile, Melbourne has accelerated production of 787 surfaces. Boeing is delivering the aircraft at a rate of seven a month, with a plan to increase to 10. The plant here is already on its way to 10 partly because it wants to build up a stock so the parts can be transported to the final assembly lines by sea instead of air. Also, Boeing will need plenty of spare flaps, ailerons and flaperons, because such parts stand a good chance of being hit by ground vehicles.
The operation here is a remarkable case of focus imposed on a business—or, rather, two businesses. In 1997, Boeing bought what was then AeroSpace Technologies of Australia, which until the 1980s had been the Government Aircraft Factories, at Fishermans Bend in Melbourne. In 2000, the U.S. company added a Sydney plant to the Melbourne operation, buying the Bankstown facility of Hawker de Havilland. Between them, the two factories had a wide variety of aerostructures work, only some of it for Boeing. The decision was made to divest of everything except Boeing control surfaces; the plants exited such programs as theChallenger 300, and a subcontract for 's Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile.
The latest step is to leave Bankstown, where Boeing has been a tenant, and concentrate at Fishermans Bend, where the company owns the land and has its R&D center. The Melbourne facility was also close to Australia's Defense Science & Technology Organization, which has facilities for fatigue- and static-testing. “We are in the final stages of consolidating the work in Melbourne,” says Dickinson, noting that production can be expanded here by reducing area occupied by current activities. Quickstep is moving into the Bankstown facility.
The concentration on composites was determined by developments in aircraft design: On the latest Boeing aircraft, control surfaces are all composite. Equipment for building in metal was sold to newly established Indian manufacturer Mahindra Aerospace in 2010. According to the strategy, that will probably not be the last time that Boeing Aerostructures Australia leaves a less advanced technology to a rival in a lower-cost country.