Boeing is starting to implement robotic fastening of 777 fuselage panels, the beginnings of what will be a significant shift toward robotization of the upcoming 777X.
Since September, Boeing (NYSE: BA) workers have been drilling and fastening some fuselages using what the company calls the Fuselage Automated Upright Build system, or FAUB, Boeing spokeswoman Elizabeth Fischtziur confirmed Tuesday.
“We began to use the new technology in production in late September on some fuselages,” she said. “Other fuselage sections continue to be built using traditional methods.”
The careful shift toward robotic assembly of 777 fuselages is a critical piece of Boeing’s move toward more automation as a way to cut costs, improve quality and reduce physical stress on workers.
Lower costs will mean lower prices, key as Boeing competes against rival Airbus. This could become even more important if Airbus does decide to build an even-larger version of the A350 widebody, which might compete more directly against Boeing’s planned 400-passenger 777-9.
The robots are doing their work in a 200,000-square-foot expansion to the primary assembly plant, on that building’s southeast corner. Boeing finished that structure this year, to house the KUKA robots that are drilling and fastening the fuselage sections. Each fuselage requires about 50,000 fasteners.
Once complete, those sections are being rolled through the plant to mesh into position on the 777 assembly line, replacing sections drilled and fastened in the more traditional hand-labor approach.
“The project is the latest in a series of 777’s automation improvements, part of its Advanced Manufacturing strategy, which have already included the use of robotics to paint wings and other drill operations,” Fischtziur said.
The careful part is Boeing’s multi-step approach to implementing the new robotic technology. The methodical approach is a tactic to avoid the production snarls that wounded the 787 Dreamliner. In that case Boeing introduced new airframe materials simultaneously with a new way of assembling them, and the combination proved too much to smoothly absorb.
In this case, Boeing is gradually implementing the FAUB system onto the existing 777 line. The goal is to have the system honed by the time Boeing starts assembling the first 777X aircraft, with their new carbon composite wings and new engines, by 2017.
Boeing will start building the 777X on what is now called the “surge line,” in Everett. That line had been used as a third line for 787 assembly as Boeing tried to catch up to 787 production.
The robots have been developed and supplied by KUKA Systems, a division of unit of KUKA AG, a German company that generated $2 billion in revenue last year.
KUKA Systems is working out of a 30,000-square-foot Everett facility, which is opened in late 2014 to meet the needs of Boeing and other West Coast manufacturers.