Although automation of aircraft maintenance is expected to be a gradual, limited process--aircraft production should see much faster and further-reaching gains.
Consultancy Roland Berger predicts that aerostructures production will move from 35% to around 65% automation within 10 years, a view that has been bolstered by last week’s opening of Airbus’ newest assembly line in Hamburg.
With a special focus on manufacturing longer sections for the A321LR, the new facility features 20 robots, a new logistics concept, automated positioning by laser measurement as well as a digital data acquisition system.
For initial section assembly, eight robots drill and counter-sink 1,100-2,400 holes per longitudinal joint. In the next production step, 12 seven-axes robots join the center and aft fuselage sections with the tail, drilling, counter-sinking, sealing and inserting 3,000 rivets per orbital joint.
“Increasing the level of automation and robotics enables faster, more efficient manufacturing while keeping our prime focus on quality,” said Michael Schoellhorn, Airbus’s chief operating officer.
Perhaps in a nod to the production problems at Hamburg that have caused delays to A321neo deliveries, Schoellhorn added: “We now need to deliver in line with our commitments made to customers while ensuring overall competitiveness.”
As Airbus notes, the digitalization that accompanies robotic automation is also an important step, and it will be interesting to see how much the former can improve supply chain and logistics processes going forward.
For the robots themselves, further advances beyond welding, drilling and fastening might prove incrementally tougher to achieve, with Roland Berger estimating that one-third of production work will remain with touch labor the foreseeable future.
“The remaining 35% is very difficult to automate unless you completely revolutionize the production system which is something that would take decades,” Roland Berger partner Holger Lipowsky has told Aviation Week.