Aerospace has always lagged the automobile industry when it comes to automation and robotically aided assembly, but with the coming debut of the 777X and 737 MAX Boeing sees an unparalleled opportunity to introduce more of this technology on both its widebody and single-aisle product lines.

The improved processes are being introduced as part of plans to streamline 777 and 737 production in advance of the next-generation models. The biggest change will be on the 777 line, where Boeing is introducing an automated drilling and riveting process for the fuselage, which it expects will cut assembly flow time by almost half. In late June, Boeing also unveiled plans to introduce an automated wing-assembly process that will reduce flow time by more than one-third.

The fuselage automated upright build (FAUB) system—being developed in relative secrecy in a former marine storage site in Anacortes, Washington—represents the first significant change in how Boeing assembles fuselages since the early 1950s. Similar to the robotic techniques used by car manufacturers, the FAUB involves the use of robots working cooperatively inside and outside the forward and aft fuselage sections. 

“In many ways, we still build fuselages like we did for the 707, and we are excited about taking this next step,” says Elizabeth Lund, 777 vice president and general manager. 

Boeing began work on the new process in September 2012, and early last year sent cross-functional assembly teams to Shelby, Michigan, to work with KUKA Robotics, a division of Germany-based KUKA Roboter. “By the end of 2013, we were boxing it all up, and by early 2014, we started to set up robots in Anacortes,” Lund says.

The process, which will improve safety as well as production quality, is expected to be introduced into the 777 assembly line sometime in 2015, paving the way for its eventual application to the 777X, which enters production in 2017. “It will take us over a year to transition to full rate,” Lund says. 

The robots will be ganged in sets on the main deck and lower lobe, and she says they will “provide us with scalability and access to difficult points.” For now, FAUB will be used for assembly of the forward fuselage Section 41/43 and aft fuselage Section 46/48 but not the 44/45 mid-sections, as they are built in fewer quantities and easier to access manually. “You don’t want to overkill with technology,” says Lund.

“It drills holes and it has sensing technology on both sides of the fuselage to do bucking and dynamic riveting,” she says, referring to the traditional manual process in which mechanics work in pairs, with one inside the structure with a “bucking bar” and the other outside with a riveting gun. “This does the exact same thing. We sent some of our best mechanics to Detroit for the original development,” she adds. The robots have been trained to precisely mimic the actions of the mechanics to reproduce the same “black magic” of the riveting process, a skill normally acquired over several years of hands-on experience.

“We started to dial-in the robots to produce those same kinds of benefits,” Lund says. “We are making sure it is duplicative of the airplane that was certified originally from our fatigue, static and flight-test vehicles. We have got the technology development well underway, and now we are doing our fatigue coupon-testing to show that it produces the same or better capability from a structural perspective compared to a manual riveting.” 

The introduction of FAUB will also change the steps taken to produce each fuselage section, removing a time-consuming step in which the large Japanese-supplied panels are put together and rotated on a big turning fixture in the Everett assembly site. Instead, Boeing will load the keel and floors together with the fuselage crown in a single located position using determinate assembly, a process like Lego toys or an Erector set that allows for quicker assembly by using features of the parts, such as drilled holes, to quickly align components without the use of additional tooling.

Commenting on the job sensitivities that the introduction of robotics inevitably raises, Lund says, “Will you be able to build the fuselage with fewer people than today? Yes. But there is a lot of work to do at the Everett site with the 777X coming in and other site changes.” Boeing says the process will enable it to reach higher build rates and thereby create additional jobs. In addition, the company says workers will be retrained to operate and manage the FAUB.

In June Boeing also shipped down new automated 737 wing assembly tools to Renton from a site in Mukilteo, near Everett. The panel assembly line (PAL) system, developed by automated manufacturing specialist Electroimpact, will be used for fastening stringers to skin panels for in-spar layup and is expected to be twice as fast as the original process. Boeing believes it will cut factory flow time for the wing by 33%. It also expects defects will be reduced about 60% and, almost as important for the space-constrained Renton site, the current wing manufacturing site footprint will be decreased by 50%.

Construction of the system, which uses lasers to precisely position drill heads over the curved surfaces of the wing, is “well underway, and we are bringing in machines this year as we prove out the qualification of those,” says 737 Business Operations Director Elizabeth Schryer. “This new process reduces flow, defects and the footprint. It gives us the capacity to do other things, and it gives us a better build process for our employees from a safety perspective as well as produces better quality,” she adds. 

The introduction of the PAL process takes further the shift to the horizontal build line for the 737 wing, which came in 2012 as part of the longer-term rate increase to 42 from 35 aircraft per month. The horizontal build-up system, which replaced the traditional system of drilling and fastening in static vertical jigs, also introduced automated machines made by Electroimpact and sped up the wing build lower skin assembly process by 35%. “This is another step in implementing a redesign of the wing line,” says Marty Chamberlin, 737 director of factory operations.