Boeing’s 777X: New robotic system nearly ready

Boeing announced the details for the 777X passenger jet at the Farnborough International airshow. The company said that the secretive automation process that it has been developing over more than a year for building the fuselage of the 777 has been undergoing testing inside a facility in Anacortes. The 777X passenger jet is due in 2020.

Boeing said that the 777X fuselage will be built using automated, guided robots that will fasten the panels of the fuselage together, drilling and filling more than approximately 60,000 fasteners. Boeing mechanics positioned on both sides of the fuselage perform the task by hand, a repetitive and tiring job that places a lot of stress on their shoulders and hands. The robots, positioned inside and outside the fuselage, not only drill the holes but act as a bucking bar and perform dynamic riveting. The advanced manufacturing system, known as the Fuselage Automated Upright Build (FAUB), was designed for Boeing by Kuka Robotics.

With increased use of robots for manufacturing, Boeing is ramping up production to keep pace with the passenger-jet demand. For instance, its 7787 manufacturing is moving from 10 per month to 14 per month in 2018. Besides the increase in production rates, Boeing said that automating the fuselage assembly process will improve safety and quality as the process is said to be responsible for more than half of worker injuries today.

“We believe that we can cut our flow by more than half,” said Elizabeth Lund, Boeing VP and General Manager. “We believe we’ll see a 50-percent reduction in safety incidents, quality improvements as well as flow reduction. At least those are our targets.”

When asked if the automation would impact jobs, Elizabeth Fischtziu, Boeing spokeswoman, said that during the testing phase, Boeing will assess the precise workforce size required to support the system.

A rendering of Boeing 777X's interior

“Then, as we implement, employees currently building the fuselage sections will either transition to working with FAUB or move to other positions on the 777 program or to other programs where there is demand for their skill set,” Fischtziur said.

That seems to mean that while the workforce assembling the 777X fuselages may eventually end up smaller than it is today, Boeing doesn’t anticipate any layoffs as it implements this robotic system. “Our goal is to transition employees to other positions where we can make the most of their skills,” said Fischtziur.

Boeing said the testing is well advanced, and engineers are getting the system ready for production.

Sources: CNET and The Seattle Times