Robotics takes off in aerospace industry

  • 09-Dec-2008 12:00 EST
Airbus final assembly-wing fitting CIMG6324.jpg

The Airbus A380 incorporates a high level of robotically manufactured components, and because much of the structural joining on the moving final assembly line in Toulouse, France, is done via automated jigs and tools, a small number of assembly teams is required.  (Richard Gardner) 

The era of robotics has already transformed the automobile manufacturing sector, and now it is becoming a key factor in aerospace, which is facing severe skills shortages in some manufacturing areas. It is also a segment in which new materials and innovative designs are proving to be ideal for robotic manufacturing.

One of the world’s leading suppliers of industrial manufacturing products and systems is Swiss company ABB, which has more than 110,000 employees working in more than 100 countries. Its automation products division is the company’s largest, with a turnover of $8.6 billion. Its process automation activity has a turnover of $6.4 billion, and its robotics activity is $1.6 billion.

The robotics division produces industrial robots, peripheral devices, modular manufacturing solutions for industry, and integrated solutions on a global basis. It introduced the first commercially available electric robots in 1974, and today it has installed more than 160,000 worldwide. Aerospace applications range from material handling to welding to assembly.

In terms of affordability, between 1990 and 2005 the average hourly wage of a typical engineering worker increased by 74%, while robot prices reduced, in real terms, by 50%, according to ABB. While the typical hourly cost of a worker was around $20, the typical operating expense of a robot was $8.

Robots offer the prospect of removing much of the tedious, unattractive, and in some cases dangerous manufacturing tasks, greatly enhancing the working environment.

There are some misconceptions that have held back a faster investment in robots. It has been assumed that there will always be an abundance of low-cost labor somewhere, but ABB points out that those places tend to grow their own capabilities; with this comes a cost rise. There is also a perception that robotic systems require specialists for programming and that they are complicated and liable to require frequent attention. This is no longer true, ABB says, although one concern, the short-term demand for a quick pay-back on investment, is harder to satisfy.

The return on robotic investment is considerable after the systems begin delivering a higher productivity rate with greater reliability and consistent quality that far outweigh older manual manufacturing methods, according to ABB.

The company cites a number of advantages that robots provide. The production rate can be altered in a far more flexible way using robots, with increases and decreases in production output easy to change. When the product design and manufacturing or finishing task is changed, the robot can be reprogrammed easily. Material costs can also be reduced as waste is minimized. Modern robots can be very compact yet multifunctional so there is less need for capital expenditure to make room for new production facilities. Accidents are less frequent, and ailments associated with repetitive and intensive processes, as well as exposure to potentially harmful materials, are minimized.

One of the chief benefits of robotics is the consistency of their actions, resulting in high-quality parts.

Tooling costs, repairs, and replacement can be dramatically reduced by using robotic force control, which uses an in-built sensor to produce an optimized action that varies with the shape and position of the part, and which can handle variations in parts. ABB Force Control technology gives robots the ability to feel, coupled with easy-to-use lead-through programming, providing highly accurate surface following for polishing, de-burring, and compliant assembly. In one example quoted by ABB, where the final finishing process of an engine turbine blade previously took a week to achieve, the time required was reduced to less than 2 h.

In Europe, robots have found a growing market with major airframe and engine manufacturers, as well as second-tier suppliers. BAE Systems, Snecma, Messier, GKN, Dassault Aviation, and Airbus have adopted robots enthusiastically for repetitive applications such as drilling, welding, painting, and general surface-treatment activities. Engine maintenance is an area of growing scope for further robotic applications, says ABB.

It is likely that the next generation of civil airliners to replace the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 will feature many embedded systems within composite structures, making possible such features as built-in anti-icing systems or even morphing wing shapes. Such radical and innovative developments will require robotic assembly, according to ABB, as the manufacturing requirements will be far more demanding in terms of accuracy, consistency, and reliability compared to anything in production today.

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