Boeing’s Humans Step In After Robots Fumble 777 Jet Assembly

Julie Johnsson and Paul Shukovsky
Bloomberg

Score one for the humans. After four years of trial and error, Boeing Co. is dumping one of its most ambitious forays into automation: the robots that build two main fuselage sections for its 777 jetliners and an upgraded version known as the 777X.

Instead, the Chicago-based planemaker will rely on skilled mechanics to manually insert fasteners into holes drilled along the circumference of the airplane by an automated system known as “flex tracks,” which it has honed over years of use on the 787 Dreamliner.

The shift to the new human-plus-machine system began during the second quarter and should be complete by year’s end, Boeing spokesman Paul Bergman said in a statement. Boeing doesn’t plan any change in total staffing for its 777 jetliners, which are manufactured in Everett, Washington, about an hour north of Seattle.

“The flex track solution has proven more reliable, requiring less work by hand and less rework, than what the robots were capable of,” he said.

Boeing was little changed at $362.41 at 11:07 a.m. Thursday in New York.

Automation’s Limits

As tempting as automation can be -- with its promise of a mechanized workforce that never gets sick, tired or hungry -- manufacturers are finding some cases where the technology can’t match the dexterity, ingenuity and precision of human hands and eyes.

Tesla Inc. famously tried to ditch workers for highly automated car and battery assembly lines that ended up undermining initial production of the Model 3 sedan.

Boeing’s fully automated initiative -- known as FAUB, for fuselage automated upright build -- relied on robots working in tandem to drill holes precisely and fasten together metal panels held upright to create the outer frame of the hulking twin-engine jets.

The technology was the handiwork of KUKA Systems, a company with deep automobile manufacturing roots. It was intended to replace the human mechanics who used hand-held tools to insert 60,000 rivets into each plane. The robots were showcased as part of the advanced manufacturing that Boeing is pioneering on the 777X, and that it plans to expand to future jetliner programs next decade.

A spokeswoman for Advanced Integration Technology, which bought the KUKA division that made Boeing’s robots, declined to comment on the planemaker’s decision to switch to a different technology.

Out of Sync But the planemaker struggled to keep the robots moving in sync on the outside and inside of the fuselage panels, creating production snarls when it first introduced the FAUB technology to the legacy 777 line. A Seattle Times report from 2016 described a swell of worker overtime and incomplete jobs that were finished after jets rolled out of the factory.

“It was hard. It took years off my life,” Jason Clark, a Boeing vice president overseeing 777X production, said during an interview earlier this year.

The robot flub isn’t a complete loss. Boeing learned some valuable lessons from its “first very deep dive into that type of technology,” Clark said. “It’s taught us how to design for automation.”

The new method creates less wear-and-tear on workers since machines developed by Electroimpact Inc. handle one of the the most physically demanding tasks of the fuselage assembly: drilling holes through metal.

Also, “We redesigned portions of the build to replace rivets with less difficult forms of fasteners, further improving the ergonomics,” Bergman said. The combination should bring improvements in safety, quality and factory flow, he said.

The 777X will be Boeing’s largest-ever jetliner, but the plane isn’t expected to take its first flight until next year after General Electric Co. unearthed a durability issue with its GE9X engines. The company relies heavily on robots to manufacture the aircraft, from wings spun from resin-infused tape to self-guided vehicles used to transport large components within the factory.