Today’s aerospace factory floor is nothing like the hectic, noisy production facility of the past. The latest techniques, designs and equipment mean that modern manufacturing is highly efficient, organised and structured. And what of tomorrow? Exploring a new aircraft in virtual
reality and using advanced digital technologies on the shop floor; production lines where computer-suited personnel and robots work side by side; 3D printers producing prototypes and series components – Airbus is making huge inroads in this area, turning ideas into reality.
The automation of assembly line processes is one of the main areas of change in the factory of the future. Part of this trend is the progressive introduction of smart robots to perform repetitive tasks, freeing up employees to assume functions requiring a greater skill or more tasks. Both Airbus and Airbus Helicopters are increasingly using the help of computerised co-workers capable of functioning safely alongside their human colleagues.
Airbus has identified 7 lines of work to optimise its industrial system by 2020. One key area is the increased use of automated techniques, which are already saving time in the traditional processes for identifying and diagnosing faults, issues or defects on the aircraft production line. And Airbus is going a step further, incrementally releasing robotic applications every year or so from 2015 onwards. These include lightweight robots and small machining systems designed to handle specific tasks.
“First we introduced safe, lightweight robots with a single arm, capable of autonomously moving around inside the aircraft to streamline installation of brackets in the fuselage,” explains Bernard Duprieu from Airbus Research & Technology. Soon, Airbus plans to install collaborative units with a higher degree of freedom, solving more complex applications in hard-to-access areas and for use at assembly stations with no change in infrastructure.
Robots will not replace human workers. We're looking at automation systems for high-volume repetitive activities where our workers bring no added value. Most processes will still be carried out by people
Exoskeletons for assembly
As part of its future vision, Airbus is also looking at boosting workers' abilities, helping them to lift heavy loads or work in difficult spaces. "We are developing a wearable robotic device, or exoskeleton," says Duprieu. "This uses a light and soft frame, based on the Steadicam harness used by cameramen, and can help the wearer manipulate certain elements by improving the ergonomic conditions."
Airbus Helicopters has already deployed a first-generation mechanical exoskeleton at the Marignane plant and is investigating the application of more sophisticated electronic exoskeletons.
Painting and testing fuselages
The introduction of robots at Airbus Helicopters is being accelerated by technological improvements. New units will be programmed to move independently throughout the workshop without disrupting or potentially harming their human co-workers.
The Division’s Aeronautical Factory of the Future research programme is studying the application of collaborative robots to perform waterproofing tests on fuselages, doors and windows – a meticulous process that is taxing on the human body. The robot would track the entire perimeter of the part, centimetre by centimetre, recording and listening for noise that would indicate a leak or hole in the airframe. Another area being explored for greater automation is in the manufacture of helicopter blades’ skin. The skin requires the highest levels of precision, and the Division is testing a robot prototype to perform this task.
Airbus Helicopters also plans to use robots to paint complex decorations and markings on helicopters, and to apply coatings on primary parts like the rotor hub. "With robots, we will optimise the finishing painting workflow – from green surface preparation to curing the final topcoat – with low energy consumption. This will help us to optimise weight and cycle savings," says Georges-Eric Moufle, leading the 'Aeronautical Factory of the Future' project at Airbus Helicopters.
What the experts say
How far are we from fully autonomous robots? Airbus Innovations and German Aerospace Center (DLR) experts Adolfo Suarez Roos and Christoph Borst discuss the role of robotics in the factory of the future.
What is the ICARO project about?
Adolfo Suarez Roos: Through the ICARO project, we aim to develop industrial collaborative assistant robots capable of safely interacting with humans and evolving in dynamic environments. A lot of research has been done on service robots with a high degree of autonomy to help the elderly and people with disabilities. Applying this to manufacturing, we would like to develop robots that can reconfigure their task if they encounter an unexpected situation. We call this degree of autonomy 'adaptability'.
Are robots already able to interact with human workers?
Christoph Borst: For the last 15 years, we have mainly developed motion capabilities concentrating on the robot itself. Now we’re starting to include the human worker and develop a language of interaction – but we need to start with simple paradigms.
Building a human counterpart is difficult, because anticipating what a human thinks is really complicated. We could start with simpler interactions: if we think about collaborations with animals like dogs, this provides basic interaction and collaboration schemes that we could apply to mobile robots in the near future.
What are the differences when you compare aerospace to other industries like car manufacturing?
Suarez Roos: In an automotive plant, a vehicle is produced every minute, and approximately 1,000 cars are manufactured a day. A robot has 40 seconds to do its job and the complete programming task takes about a month. At Airbus, we produce 1.5 planes per day, so we have to look at tasks that will last several hours. This is very challenging in terms of programming. We also have high quality requirements and large parts. We need mobile, collaborative robots and a very simple, efficient way to programme the robot.
How far are we from a ‘fully autonomous’ robot?
Borst: The next steps are to introduce a new generation of humanoid robots into the factory that can safely interact with humans. I would also expect the robot to be able to imitate things they have seen, been taught or learned via demonstrations. I don’t think they will figure out new solutions yet. What I see is imitation, not that they will take over the factory.
Today, digital mock-ups, laser projections over aircraft bodies and complex 3D environments are fully integrated into the aerospace industry. Beyond virtual reality’s use during the design and development phases, workers across Airbus are proving its benefits in the production processes, whether by wearing special goggles, helmet-mounted displays, or even as an artificial avatar in a virtual environment.
New dimension with the A350 XWB
Paper sketches are a thing of the past – today's aircraft are entirely designed in the digital world. For example, a 3D geometric data model represents the aircraft in a digital mock-up, which is the master for the aircraft’s production process.
The management of the A350 XWB lifecycle, for example, involves the creation of a virtual environment with a size and complexity never before seen in the industry. This environment has 30,000 registered users, and around 10,000 people – including engineers from both Airbus and the supply chain – use it on a daily basis to access detailed, up-to-date information on the programme. As part of the design and development of this aircraft, Airbus also used the Realistic Human Ergonomic Analysis (RHEA) tool. This enabled operators to ‘enter’ and interact with a full-scale 3D digital model of the A350 XWB.
Airbus Helicopters is also exploring the potential of virtual reality with RHEA to perform maintenance and testing tasks that are painful for the human body, to assess if a job is feasible and to train workers.
MiRA – Mixed Reality Application: time-saving navigation
MiRA was the logical next step at Airbus. It is a smart and easy-to-use tool that integrates the digital mock-up into the production environment by providing access to the 3D model to the people who directly work with the aircraft .
The device is a cross between a tablet PC and a specially developed sensor pack with software. The pack detects the operator’s movements and streams and captures video from the real environment. In this way, MiRA allows the user to access the 3D model of the aircraft from any perspective, navigating from his chosen angle using a geo-location device connected to the plane, and provides additional system information to facilitate production work. User feedback is also incorporated into the digital aircraft mock-up and can be accessed by the engineering teams.
MiRA links a real object with its digital genome, transforming reality into an interactive world in which information about the object can be directly accessed
MiRA is now used on the A380 and A350 XWB production lines to check the secondary structural brackets that hold systems such as hydraulics and pipes in place. It also reduces late discoveries of damaged, wrongly positioned or missing brackets.
At the same time, Airbus Helicopters is experimenting with ‘intelligent’ devices that utilize MiRA. One example of a tool that the Division is piloting is similar to an industrial version of Google Glass, integrating MiRA technology, which gives workers more information and better instructions. This tool is expected to enter service in 2015.
The use of smartphones is not commonplace in Airbus assembly lines, but in the factory of the future digital technology will be introduced everywhere. The Division’s ‘smart workshop’ concept uses intelligent production tools to quickly capture and log data, eliminating potential errors. The research manufacturing team is developing building blocks like data format, communication exchange technology and a ‘techno store’ – a software and hardware library to distribute these tools throughout the plants.
The team is also considering how to streamline processes in the smart workshop. Using features like finger- or eye-tracking, voice control and projecting work-instruction images in 3D over a structure enables workers to operate efficiently without being encumbered.
The 'techno store' concept is inspired by the way smartphones can be customised using apps and hardware. It should enable labs and companies to develop hardware and apps directly compatible with our shop-floor applications, just like Apple and Google are doing with the worldwide developers who feed their stores
The digital workroom
Airbus Helicopters has also introduced its ‘digital factory’ concept for new programmes such as the forthcoming X4. The Division has put in place a solution that helps it optimise the sequencing of parts assembly by simulating the process for a particular part in a workflow, completely synchronised with the design office: the design office sends the Digital Mock-Up (DMU) to the shop floor, which is then sequenced using the digital factory technology.
Another recent development at Airbus Helicopters is the electronic jigboard. When working on a prototype in the past, operators had to extract the data from the DMU, print the prototype jigboard and then have electrical workers manually install wires on the mock-up. Today, thanks to new software, instead of printing the prototype jigboard, a digital version is now projected onto a screen. Workers then use an iPad to assemble the harness, highlighting the complex route that the wires must take on screen.
Together with these new initiatives, Airbus Helicopters has already made big strides in optimising the painting process thanks to digitalisation. For example, camouflage designs on the Tiger and NH90 helicopters today are projected from the DMU onto the fuselage with lasers, while workers inside the booth paint the design in real time. In the past, these shapes were drawn on the aircraft body and painted by hand. Introducing lasers saves time and results in better quality, as the artists are sure of the exact location and shape of the designs.
We aim to automate the manufacturing of parts like blades and rotors with robust, efficient processes that absorb all the deviations that occur during production. We will rely on digital tools to track all elements of the production process, and to see and correct any deviations in real time
Across the Airbus, numerous projects are accelerating the development of 3D printing to produce prototypes and series components, potentially delivering cheaper and lighter parts. And 3D printing can also be of great help in assembly lines to avoid outstanding work and achieve greater efficiency in production.
3D printing is the dream of any engineer. You have an idea, you print overnight and the next morning you have a new part in your hands
What is 3D printing?
The 3D printing process, also called Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM), offers a completely new approach to production. Instead of obtaining a part by cutting away a solid block of material, it works from the inside out, building the part layer by layer. The process repeatedly prints very thin layers of material on top of each other until the layers form a solid object, in materials ranging from high-grade titanium alloys to glass and concrete.
3D printing makes it simpler to produce very complex shapes: an electron or laser beam is used to model the desired material according to a computer-generated design. Therefore, parts designed for and manufactured by ALM can have a natural and topologically optimised shape, which would be impossible if producing them from a solid block of material. Such parts are lighter, faster to produce and ultimately much less expensive than conventional ones.
3D printed parts in aircraft, satellites and UAVs
Airbus has started using ALM for tooling, prototyping, making parts for test flights and also for parts that will fly on commercial aircraft. Components produced with this method are beginning to appear on a range of the Company’s aircraft, from the next-generation A350 XWB to in-service jetliners that form the cornerstone of the A300/A310 Family. The first flight-qualified ALM part – a titanium alloy bracket – from Airbus Defence and Space is flying aboard the Atlantic Bird 7 telecoms satellite, while the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Atlante has a 3D-printed air intake onboard.
ALM in the line: print and go
Beyond its use to build parts that are already flying, Airbus is looking at using ALM technology to avoid outstanding work during the manufacturing process. “Each time we have a missing part at assembly level it causes a significant disturbance and costs money for us to recover. ALM can be used to manufacture missing and non-standard parts fast in low quantities,” says Airbus’ Bernard Duprieu. His project team is developing a workshop capable of manufacturing customised parts in less than 24 hours.
Duprieu’s team is currently producing a number of flying plastic components and by the end of 2015 they will manufacture certified titanium parts. Following this, the team expects to produce ALM aluminium and superalloy parts. Meanwhile, Duprieu’s colleague at Airbus Innovations, Rainer Rauh, is one of the coordinators of a trans-Divisional team whose overall target is to achieve highly efficient production. This group of experts is exploring titanium powder, aluminium alloys, nickel and plastic as the raw materials for ALM. The goal is to obtain a very cheap powder to serve as the raw material for designing more and more parts.
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