Robots are set to help aircraft manufacturers rise to the challenges that will define production in the 21st century, and the UK is providing much of the impetus for advance.
Robot and automation supplier Mitsubishi Electric has become a Technology Partner to Sheffield University's Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) with Boeing. The AMRC is rapidly becoming recognised as a world-class global research facility for developing innovative and advanced technologies for advanced materials forming, manufacturing and manufacturing management. Sheffield is recognised for its long-term leadership in manufacturing, and the aerospace industry has regularly tapped into its expertise. Boeing has traditionally looked to the UK for manufacturing and production expertise and, as such, is a substantial contributor to the UK economy.
Despite aerospace's reputation for being at the cutting-edge of technology, its manufacturing and production process are largely craft-based. The huge amounts of manual labour associated with building an aircraft introduces inefficiency, inconsistencies and time delays. This makes it difficult to meet peak demand, such as Boeing is currently experiencing with its A737 and will face when the new 787 Super Jumbo comes into production.
Automation is the only option
Jon Sumner, a technology specialist with Mitsubishi, says: "It also opens up issues of human errors, repeatability, traceability, and health and safety. To date the aircraft makers have been in a position where they can dictate supply to the customers, but that is changing completely. The major players and the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) recognise this and are trying to stay ahead of the curve. In many ways what they are doing now is what other manufacturing industries did 20 years ago."
Mitsubishi claims to be the world's largest supplier of automation systems and technologies. It was the inventor of, and remains the pre-eminent supplier of, the brick PLC, the backbone of many automation systems, has an extensive library of manufacturing management suites, and possibly the broadest range of industrial robots available.
The FAA has published a demanding timetable for change; manufacturers who cannot reach it will find their approvals revoked. Set out in objectives such as accuracy, repeatability and traceability, automation is the only practical way forward.
Sumner explains: "It is not a simple technology transfer from, say, the automotive industries. Because production volumes are relatively low and customisation is common, we have to develop flexible automation systems that can perform multiple tasks and be re-deployed at various stages of the build programme."
This makes robots a particularly suitable technology. They are highly adaptable and can be assigned to very different tasks. They are easy to retool and reprogramme for multiple tasks and, when coupled with complementary technologies such as vision systems, because almost human-like in their ability to adapt.
Mitsubishi already has an enviable track record in the automation of aerospace production. For instance, it has developed a system based on standard servodrive technologies for building wing stringers, each one slightly - but critically - different from its neighbour down the span of the wing.
It also has manufacturing management programmes that are proven in highly complex, highly critical production environments.
About the AMRC
Boeing established the AMRC with Sheffield University in order to have a definitive Centre of Excellence that would co-ordinate otherwise disparate activities. It has already become a world-class community where research, design, manufacture and study interact effectively to put technology into practice. Its benchmarking of tools and techniques for machining aerospace-quality materials have gained global recognition, and it is incubating spin-out activities to help raise the performance of both local and national manufacturing companies.