While robots have been commonplace on car production lines for decades, it is only in the last few years that they have started performing significant work at aircraft assembly sites.
This might seem strange since aircraft production features the type of repetitive task ideally suited to robots and indeed, it is riveting and hole-drilling that Boeing and Airbus have focused on in the past few years: Boeing now uses robots to rivet certain 777 sections together, while Airbus has installed a pair of hole-drilling robots at its A320 assembly line in Hamburg.
Why robots aren’t more widespread is due in part to aviation’s exceptionally high safety standards, as well as the lower volumes it operates at compared with industries such as car manufacturing.
However, as image-recognition, actuator and software technologies improve, robot performance can meet or exceed that of touch labor, while the unprecedented production ramp-ups of the main aircraft manufacturers are further improving the business case for robots.
“Robotics used in say the automotive industry – building a consumer product – have many different characteristics to the demands of building a large complex aircraft,” Airbus’s head of manufacturing technologies, Patrick Vigie, tells Inside MRO.
“However, working with partners provides a degree of being able to benefit from cross-over ideas and principles,” he adds.
Maintenance providers are also interested in automation, although the challenges associated with using robots are even greater than in the production space.
“We need a robot that is able to connect within our complete process environment, including the IT,” notes Gerrit Rexhausen, Lufthansa Technik’s head of corporate projects for automation.
Nevertheless, Lufthansa Technik has identified several MRO tasks suitable for automations, and has robots in various stages of development to tackle them.
To find out more about the use of robots in aircraft production and maintenance, see the next issue of Inside MRO.