“Drilling and fastening operations are the most com- mon application in our manufacturing assembly process as a whole, and that is unlikely to change any time soon,” said Curtis Richardson, Associate Technical Fellow, Robotics and Automation Technology, Manufacturing Research and Devel- opment, Spirit AeroSystems Inc. (Wichita, KS).
also getting more automation attention due to the proliferation of large composite aircraft structures.
Aero Automation Surges
Leading a list of highly automated aircraft programs, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is built by several prime contractors and subcontractors working with Lockheed Martin (Bethesda, MD), employing a great deal of robotic automation including robotic drilling cells installed at Northrop Grumman Corp.’s (NGC; El Segundo, CA) Integrated Assem- bly Line (IAL) at the Palmdale, CA, manufacturing facility that builds the F-35’s center fuselage.
An aircraft wing-drilling operation performed by a robot from Kuka Robotics.
Government-funded Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programs conducted in recent years have started to pay off with development of improved, more accurate robotic drilling and fastening systems. Key technology enablers include metrology- and vision-guided drilling and fastening systems, using secondary encoders that help boost robot ac- curacy, and force control sensors for robotic painting, coating and sanding applications on large airframes. “One of the strongest technical trends in aerospace automa- tion is the integration of sensor systems; 2D and 3D vision are still the most common sensing systems used, but integration with metrology systems such as laser trackers and scanners is also becoming more prevalent,” Richardson said. “Accuracy and quality standards in many aerospace applications are driving integration of metrology even for traditional gantry and Cartesian machines, but we’re seeing benefits from metrology integrated with lower-cost automation like robotics as well. In- dustrial robots themselves have improved to the point that they are now capable of doing some work that 10 or 15 years ago would have required purpose-built machine tools.” Other areas where robotic automation is gaining ground include processes like nondestructive inspection, part trim- ming, and surface preparation, Richardson said, which are
Installed by Kuka Systems Corp. (Sterling Heights, MI), the IAL features an automated workcell for the F-35 Inlet Duct Robotic Drilling (IDRD) project, an SBIR program with the Air Force Research Laboratory that involved automation integra- tor Comau Aerospace (Southfield, MI) along with partners Variation Reduction Solutions Inc. (VRSI; Plymouth, MI), the Delmia brand of Dassault Systèmes (Auburn Hills, MI), Cenit North America Inc. (Auburn Hills, MI), and Fanuc Robotics America Corp. (Rochester Hills, MI). The F-35 IDRD used a Digital Thread manufacturing concept with software and me- trology technology in the Fastener Installation Live Link System (FILLS) that ensures highly accurate automated insertion of the roughly 30,000 fasteners on the F-35 center fuselage.
“Each plane has many thousands of
fastener locations that need to be drilled and filled to complete a plane.”
“The aerospace companies are using robots and auto- mated guided vehicles [AGVs] for automating applications for the same reasons other industries, like automotive, have been using them—improvement in process speed and quality, as well as taking people out of hazardous jobs and making them machine operators instead of manual laborers,” said Dave Masinick, account manager, aerospace, Kuka Robotics Corp. (Shelby Township, MI). “The difference is in the business and applications drivers. Aerospace production is a relatively slow, low-volume, high-value process compared to other manufac- turing. The ‘volume’ demand is not the product throughput, but rather the high number of process steps required to complete the plane. The best example of that is drilling and fastening together the frame structures and skins.