Boeing was warned its 'inside-outside' robot plan for 777X assembly would fail

Andrew McIntosh – Staff Writer, Puget Sound Business Journal
Puget Sound Business Journal

Boeing was warned years ago that its plan to use robots inside and outside the body of fuselages wouldn't work to assemble sections of the 777X and 777, a Seattle aerospace executive says.

A Bloomberg News report this week revealed that jet maker is eliminating the use of riveting robots made by Kuka Systems. Instead, Boeing mechanics will insert fasteners into holes drilled along the circumference of fuselages used to build the 777 and 777X jets in Everett.

"They asked us to bid on the project a few years back and we refused. We told them It will not work," said Peter Zieve, the president of Electroimpact Inc. The Mukilteo-based company designs and develops automation systems and robots used on the 777X assembly line.

"What they tried to do with the robots has been repeatedly tried so many times over the past 30 years, and it's always failed each time," Zieve told the Business Journal. "They tried it on the C-17 program (massive Boeing-made military transport jet) and it didn't work there, either."

Boeing declined to comment on Zieve's remarks.

The work will be done in combination with an automated system known as flex tracks, which Boeing has used for years on the smaller 787 Dreamliner. The switch began in the first half of 2019 and is expected to be completed by year end, Boeing spokesman Paul Bergman said.

Bergman said Boeing regularly evaluates production systems to identify opportunities to improve safety, product quality and production stability.

"We always aim to match the right technologies and techniques to the job at hand," he said.

Kuka robots had worked inside and outside the forward and aft 777X and 777 fuselage sections, as seen in this Boeing video.

The Seattle Times reported in 2016 that Boeing struggled to keep those robots moving in sync on the outside and inside of fuselage panels, creating production snarls. Kuka robots produced damaged and incompletely assembled fuselages that needed finishing by hand, The Times reported.

"The flex track solution has proven more reliable, requiring less work by hand and less rework, than what the robots were capable of in the forward and aft fuselage areas," Bergman said.

Electroimpact's robots, which work only on the outside of 777 and 777X aircraft structures and at mid-body sections, remain on the job and are working "as per Boeing's specifications," Zieve said.

Zieve said he's excited upgraded 777X engines from GE Aviation are being installed on the test 777X before a first flight, which he thinks will be a huge success.