Airbus Is Teaching Jetliners to Dance With Robots in Hamburg

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Airbus SE has manufactured planes in a maze of brick- and metal-clad buildings outside Hamburg for the better part of three decades. Every day, whale-shaped cargo planes called Belugas touch down on the adjacent airstrip and disgorge fuselage tubes, wings, and cockpit sections that will be joined together into commercial jetliners. The production process has changed little over the years. Passenger jets are some of the world’s most complex machines, but making them remains surprisingly artisanal, with millions of rivets installed largely by hand.

A short stroll from those original production halls, behind the facade of a towering building the length of two football fields, a revolution is taking place. Last year, Airbus inaugurated a facility for the A320 model where the assembly line, the fixed cranes to move the planes, and many of the workers are gone. Instead, there are open spaces, robots, and mobile assembly platforms operated by remote control. “Building an aircraft is basically a long to-do list,” says Eckart Frankenberger, the company’s chief industrial architect, who led the design of the new layout. “The philosophy of this hangar was to make it as flexible as possible and thereby more efficient.”

Idiosyncratic rules govern output. Safety standards are paramount, making certification arduous and precision the No. 1 requirement. And unlike in car production, in which completed sections are preassembled and then bolted into the chassis by robots, a modular approach isn’t common for aircraft. That’s because some of the best-selling planes date to an era when output was far lower (the Boeing 737 dates from the 1960s). Planes were drawn with paper and ink rather than 3D-computer graphics programs. There was little regard for human-machine interaction on the line, making some parts difficult to reach with robotic arms. “When the last generation of narrowbodies were designed, engineers didn’t put a priority on designing it to be manufactured in an industrially efficient way,” says Manfred Hader, co-head of the aerospace and defense practice at consulting firm Roland Berger.

Airbus Is Teaching Jetliners to Dance With Robots in Hamburg

With an order backlog of almost 6,000 A320s, Airbus needs to focus on efficiency. The company can make 10 planes a month in the new assembly hall, on par with each of the other local facilities, but with 20 percent fewer people than on the other lines, which were designed with a static layout and equipment that needs servicing every year, halting production for two weeks. Tasks demand rigorous attention to detail and physical endurance: Thousands of components get hauled up several flights of stairs connecting assembly stations on two levels; workers have to do neck-straining overhead drilling or crouch to install window frames, insulation mats, and ventilation ducts. Aligning the front and rear sections of the tubes to form the body can take a half-dozen workers five hours.

Identifying space for the new line was the easy part: A vast hangar where workers installed the interiors of the mammoth A380 sat largely idle because of low demand for the double-decker. Airbus started with what it calls a “clean-floor concept,” with only a few fixed installations in the space, such as a yellow crane at the gate that hoists the large structural parts into the building. Instead of moving down a line, the planes rotate like 16-ton ballerinas on mobile platforms, giant structures that a single person can steer by remote control. The nose landing gear is installed by a hulking robotic arm that’s folded under the aircraft and controlled from a computer console. Aligning the two wings happens simultaneously, saving time. The forward and aft sections of an A320 are guided together with lasers, a process that cuts assembly time to half an hour. Then the two pieces are joined by a pair of enormous robots, dubbed Luise and Renate, to distinguish left from right. The twin sisters weigh 22 tons each, and their multidirectional arms can reach up more than 20 feet to drill 2,400 holes in each plane and fill them with rivets, all with precision that exceeds that of the humans on the other lines.

The new hall is quiet and calm, the gray floors spotless, with wings suspended like giant mobiles from their movable rigs, awaiting assembly. The white platforms and red arms that hold the fuselage in its metal cradle look straight out of a science fiction movie. Airbus will have an opportunity to create a similar facility in the next few years when another huge hall across the street becomes available as the A380 winds down entirely. Before then, it aims to extend the lessons it’s learned to the rest of its facilities—including in Hamburg, at its primary assembly site in Toulouse, France, and at the wing-manufacturing factory in Wales.

Given the intricacies of building planes, the relatively low output, and the sheer size of the components, Roland Berger predicts the process won’t be more than 65 percent automated for at least the next decade. But the advances shown on the Airbus line point the way to the next generation of production, from blueprint to finished aircraft, says Guillaume Faury, who took over as chief executive officer on April 9. “This is one of the building blocks of our digital trajectory and robotization of our production.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: David Rocks at drocks1@bloomberg.net, Dimitra Kessenides

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