This weekend over 100 million people will travel to celebrate the holidays with their families. Air travel is at an all time high, and Boeing can’t build planes fast enough to meet demand. In fact, yesterday Boeing was fined $12 million from the FAA for skipping regulatory quality control measures in an effort of speeding up production (yikes!).
In response, Boeing has been automating its production line with paint-bots, auto-riveters, and now its latest robot, an Automated Fiber Placement tool. The AFP robot is 175-foot-long, 50-foot-wide and 35-foot-tall built by tooling company, Electroimpact. These machines will set the carbon fiber for the 777X wing skins and spars, the core parts making up the wings. Electroimpact’s technology lays down multiple carbon composite tapes at once, at controlled rates. The requirements are so exacting that the work cannot be done by hand.
“You want the fiber aligned with load path as much as you can,” said Ben Hempstead, Electroimpact Chief of Staff. “They have to be placed in the right direction, placed in precision relative to each other, and you also need to lay it down quickly to maximize your production efficiency.”
The work also is a race against the curing clock, because the pre-impregnated carbon composite tape starts to cure after it’s taken out of refrigeration. Boeing declined to comment on progress of the $1 billion 777X wing build facility, or of the machinery to be inside. Neither Boeing nor Electroimpact would detail the dollar value of Electroimpact’s work for Boeing.
A second type of machine that Electroimpact is building is what is called a Mid-Body System. When completed, these machines will robotically drill and fasten the rings that hold the cylindrical fuselage sections to each other. A completed fuselage is made of several tube-like sections, fastened end-to-end.
A third type of machine is the Wing Box Assembly System, which will position the wing skins and spars so they can be fastened together. Electroimpact engineers are designing this machine, but have not yet started building it. A fourth set of machines will be sent to St. Louis, where they will drill holes for the 777X’s control surfaces, called flaps and ailerons. Partly in response to all this growth, Electroimpact will early next year start work on another 41,000-square-foot building. The company employs 745, and is adding new people each week, considering a year ago the workforce was a fraction of its current roster.
Three years ago I walked through Boeing’s Everett Factory, which is as big as 3 football fields, and saw only humans riveting bolts into the fuselages. The guide explained that they had a three year backlog on its orders, I knew then that the robot disruption would be happening much sooner than anyone thought.
Then there is always Santa’s production line, modernized by Google: