How robots and mobile tool platforms make aeroplane assembly easier
Critical point: the final assembly
When the fuselage sections, wings of a plane are joined and cabin elements are installed, the built has arrived at the final assembly line. Here, it is often cranes that manoeuvre the parts into the correct position, which is as long-winded and inflexible as it sounds. Even the factory workers have to do some heavy lifting and work in unergonomic positions, such as stretched overhead – and deal with the health consequences that follow.
Innovative automation technology in demand
In order to become quicker and more ergonomic during final aircraft assembly, in 2015 one aircraft manufacturer chose to use a final assembly line with modern automation technology and new industrial standards. Specifically, an improved transport system, a modern ergonomics concept and the use of robots were to reduce the work requirement by up to 500 hours per aircraft during the final assembly.
New “Clean Floor” concept reduces work required
An important part of this new final assembly line is a “clean floor” concept with mobile tool platforms and entirely mobile workstations. Because with no fixed installations on the work floor, the aircraft parts can be moved into the correct position more flexibly and to an accuracy of mere millimetres – and all without cranes or fixed equipment. In this way, the hall itself can be used in different ways. Another advantage is that moving an aircraft from one workstation to the next in the hall is one of the elements that may quickly become time-consuming during final assembly. With support from umlaut, whose experts accompanied and optimised processes, the aircraft manufacturer was able to reduce the production cycle lead time from the original twelve hours down to under three hours.
Improved ergonomics thanks to robots
Alongside a modern transport system, new technologies were also to be implemented in the final production line. To this end, two 7 tonne six-axis robots were developed, which are able to precisely drill and rivet the front and back fuselage sections of the aircraft. Previously, the factory workers had to do this entirely by hand in a position that was usually ergonomically very challenging. In total, the robots carry out around 2160 work steps per aircraft. Alongside the factory workers, the two large robots and the small installation robots – which work on assembling the main and nose landing gears, among other tasks – raise the quality on the final assembly line to a new level. Together with the aircraft manufacturer, umlaut made the robots ready for series production. When the experts came at the end of 2018, the robots were just getting started. umlaut was able to contribute to the production of over 100 higher quality planes by the end of April 2020.
Process know-how and quality management
Once the project was in full flow, umlaut did more than just support the further development of the robots. The team advanced the new final assembly line with deep process and technology knowledge, continually and extensively testing the line with the run-at-rate method, undertook workshops for the factory workers on using the new technologies and led standardised procedures for process analysis and improvement in order to guarantee the stability of the series production.
After more than two years of work, the result is a more flexible and quicker aircraft production in a more efficient and more modern work environment. The manufacturer also wants reproduce this success on other production lines worldwide and deploy these new technologies and processes in places where this is appropriate.