Using hand tools to fit small components, the industry has seen little change in its processes over the last six decades; however, with an increase in demand and ever-rising production costs, the industry is starting to experience a shift and is now looking to automation to improve its efficiency and increase its bottom line.
With 4,568 orders for its A320neo family and a strong strategy to raise production levels from 40 components a month to 60 in the space of two years, Airbus had little choice but to introduce robots into its production line. Boeing has also followed suit due to the high volume of orders for its 737 Max short-haul plane and its 777X model.
It is not only the big names in aerospace that are turning to automation but also their suppliers. Pratt & Whitney’s new jet engine, featuring a geared turbo fan, will be supplied to these big names and their global rivals. The US manufacturer expects its output level to increase to 1,200 by 2020 – a level that only automation can enable it to achieve.
Accuracy, consistency and strength of materials are all vital components in an aircraft’s success and safety. Manufacturers such as GKN have long been using robots on their lines to ensure these high standards are achieved.
At its UK plant in Bristol, automated fibre placement machines are utilised to cover the 27-metre wing spans of the latest airlines with carbon fibre. These machines also carry the components between the separate workstations and are used to complete tasks such as welding.
Whilst robotics is generally a new concept for the industry, Kuka Robotics – based in Germany – has been designing and honing its aerospace robots for over ten years, with its machines now capable of drilling, polishing, welding and riveting.
These types of machines reduce the need for workers in companies such as Boeing, with the US aerospace group currently using these robots to assemble sections of the 777 twin aisle aeroplane fuselage. These robots prevent workers completing the repetitive tasks often associated with injury and can insert the thousands of components in half the time. As with the car industry, there are even robots to carry out spray painting work.
Whilst cost is a huge factor for turning to robots, Kuka argues that the use of its robots frees up human time to enable them to focus on jobs to which they are better suited due to their flexibility and decision-making abilities. There is also an argument that the robots conduct the more dangerous duties, reducing risk factors for human workers.
Airbus is working with researchers across the globe to try to incorporate a fleet of robots to work alongside its staff rather than taking over their jobs.
Some companies are researching ideas that are more drastic, such as 3D printing, and many now fear that loyal and dedicated staff will soon face losing their jobs to machines; however, in countries demonstrating the highest use of robots, such as Japan, we also see the lowest unemployment rates and the highest productivity levels.
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