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OM in the News: Boeing and Airbus Shift to Automated Assembly

July 15, 2016
A Boeing 777 assembly line at the company’s Everett, Wash., production facility

A Boeing 777 assembly line at the company’s Everett, Wash., production facility

The world’s biggest plane makers are digging deep into the technology toolbox to deliver what they have promised will be an unprecedented boost in airliner production. Boeing and Airbus have racked up record orders over the past several years, thanks to booming demand from global airlines. “Now,” writes The Wall Street Journal (July 9-10, 2016), “they have to deliver all those planes.” To meet the challenge, they are increasingly relying on robots, drones and human workers who wear powered exoskeletons to help them ramp up production in what industry executives say is the aerospace industry’s largest-ever peacetime expansion.

The same march toward automation is sweeping across the manufacturing sector. But for Boeing and Airbus, the sense of urgency is heightened by years of promises made to new customers. The two intend to build 33% more each year by 2020, or around 1,800 planes. Until recently both companies made jetliners largely by hand; but they are learning from the high-volume automotive industry. New production technologies that plane makers are putting in place will help accelerate productivity gains.

Boeing’s new 1.3 million-square-foot Washington facility hosts high-speed robots that lay carbon-fiber tape and automated vehicles that ferry wing components around the factory. Airbus is putting a more automated assembly line in place as it seeks to raise production of its A-320 model to 60 a month in 2019 from the current 45 planes Their facility features automated moving platforms to carry the planes through the assembly process, laser measuring tools to better align components, and adjustable-height robots to drill more than 2,000 holes. Where manual labor is still required, Airbus has started using drones for external inspections of planes, and it has devised a mechanical exoskeleton to boost the strength of workers who bore holes so they can more easily lift the 12-kilogram drill required for the job. The device can also help retain aging but skilled employees.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Why is the airplane industry now looking to the auto industry for change?
  2. Why were planes largely made by hand to this point?


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