Boeing’s automated 777 production system is back on track

EVERETT — The Boeing Co.’s radical revamp of how it makes its twin-aisle 777 has cleared early challenges that hampered airplane production for months. At the time, the company’s top executives publicly downplayed the issues, even as mechanics hustled to rework planes with hundreds of unfinished jobs.

Those days are gone, and Boeing expects the new production system — a leap in manufacturing automation — to turn out all 777 fuselage sections in the coming months. Workers assemble the airplane’s body in three sections — forward, mid-body and aft — which are then joined together. The company had hoped to be making all three fuselage sections with the new process by now.

Now, Boeing only makes every other one of the 777’s forward fuselage section using the new technology. Workers started a few months ago making mid-body fuselage sections. They plan to be at full production rate — which is dropping from 8.3 to seven airplanes a month — for forward and mid-body sections in three to six months. They also will soon turn out the aft section, starting around April.

To get the most out of the automated systems, Boeing engineers have made design changes to the 777 and 777X. When the robots struggled to drive rivets in some areas, designers swapped out the type of fastener for a threaded pin called a Hi-Lok, said Jason Clark, Boeing vice president of 777/777X operations.

The new process is called Fuselage Automated Upright Build — typically shortened to FAUB (pronounced “fob”). It is being incorporated, along with other technological advances, in conjunction with Boeing’s new 777X airliner, which is currently in development and slated for first delivery in 2020. Not far from the FAUB building is a sprawling new factory for making the 777X’s composite material wings.

Boeing has gone to great lengths on the 777X program to avoid the sort of production problems that plagued the 787, which arrived more than three years late and billions of dollars over budget. So, they opted to launch FAUB with the 777, which Boeing has been producing since the early 1990s. Boeing and KUKA, which makes the robotic machines used in FAUB, spent months testing them in Anacortes, before bringing them down to Everett last year.

Messy leaps

Making a technological leap is “messy. It doesn’t (always) work quite right. It’s disruptive,” Clark said. “But as it starts to smooth out, like we’re seeing now, it starts executing on time.”

Even so, the payoff is worth it, he said. FAUB offers a much more efficient and flexible production system.

“Everything is on wheels,” Clark said, as he walked through the FAUB building.

Cradles, some as tall as a three-story building, hold fuselage sections for the 777. They can be rolled to new locations as needed. Gone are the towering structures anchored into the factory floor, as is the case on other airplane final assembly lines.

That offers two big benefits. First, the plant quickly can be reconfigured.

Second, Boeing should be able to add new 777X versions into production without slowing output. To do that now means tearing out existing tooling. That means tearing out small buildings inside the plant and constructing new ones. The result can be months of interruptions for construction and then testing the changes.

That work can be done offsite with the new system, and once it is ready, simply plugged into the production line. With FAUB, the interruption to production should be measured in minutes and hours, Clark said.

That should translate into shorter development time for new derivative versions of the plane.

Big shift

Adopting the new automation has required a big shift in how Boeing thinks about production, Clark said.

The company studied this type of automation “decades ago. The problem was we weren’t skookum enough on how automation integrates back then,” he said.

In its marrow, Boeing is an airplane maker, it “is not an automation expert,” he said.

The company turned to global leaders in the field: KUKA, MTorres and Electroimpact, which is a five-minute drive from Boeing Everett.

Robots deliver identical results and efficiency, but they demand consistency.

“Automation can’t adjust” the way a human can, Clark said. A robot “is just a stupid machine.”

To do its work correctly, each production part must look the same and be in the same position.

Clark and others on the program learned early on how much traditional 777 assembly relied on mechanics adjusting on the fly. Of course, the finished airplanes all met the same high standards, but not every rivet was drilled in the exact same spot. Not every fuselage panel was loaded in the exact same position. But it was all close enough for mechanics to do their jobs.

Now, if a panel is put into the tooling askew, the robot might drill in the wrong place.

Early on, just getting the fuselage panels in the right place to start drilling would put production as much as two days behind schedule. Now, drilling starts right on time, Clark said.

Workers still are getting used to operating robots. For now, they sit in cherry pickers near where the machine is drilling, operating it with a computer tablet called a pendant. As they get more proficient, they will run them from a nearby control hub on the floor.

Still, some who were there for the startup say hardly a week went by when a worker didn’t crash a robot into an airplane.

Clark said that was an exaggeration, but acknowledged there have been mishaps. “When we first started, I gotta say, it was tough.”

Any damage, though, has been easily repaired, with one exception. A robot scraped a panel last summer so much that it had to be scrapped. Boeing and KUKA have used accidents to improve future operations, changing the robots’ programming to prevent repeating the incidents.

“Does it mean we won’t have mistakes? No,” Clark said. “But once we realize the mistake, you program it out and lock it out, and there’s no way for that thing to do it again.”

So far, Boeing has had to make about one-tenth as many repairs due to accidents in the FAUB building compared to the traditional assembly line, according to data from the company.

That is not simply due to having more robots. FAUB is more automated but it still relies heavily on humans. “Percentage wise, the vast majority of it is still manual,” Clark said.

Indeed, 777X production is expected to employ more workers than are on the 777, he said.

They are getting ready to start assembling the first 777X fuselage sections later this year. The 777X cradles are in the plant. KUKA and Boeing workers put them together in late December, while most of the plant lay idle for the holidays.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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