Boeing to use robotics to speed 777X production in Everett plant

The Seattle TimesApril 9, 2014 

The Boeing Co. plans to deploy robotic assembly technology on the 777X that will dramatically change the way the plane’s metal hull is built, documents submitted to the city of Everett indicate.

The automation technology, replacing a crane and a giant cylindrical fixture now used to turn the half-built fuselage midway through its production, should allow Boeing to increase its 777 production rate beyond the current 100 jets per year.

The technology, refined and tested last year in a secret facility in Anacortes, will be incorporated into a new 777X fuselage assembly building described in the city planning documents.

Because the 777X fuselage sections will always be right-side up as they are assembled from large curved panels, Boeing has dubbed the system the “fuselage automated upright build” process.

Boeing’s plans state that no change in employment numbers is expected from the automation.

The new 777X fuselage assembly building is separate from the much larger, 1.3 million-square-foot 777X composite wing facility for which plans have also been submitted.

The final assembly line for the 777X, where the fuselage sections will be joined and the composite wings attached, is expected to be in the main factory, replacing what is today a temporary “surge” line for 787 Dreamliner production.

The fuselage building will be just east of the main factory assembly buildings and connected to an existing seal-and-paint building. The southern wall of the seal-and-paint building will be removed so that 40-ton overhead cranes can move freely between the two facilities.

It will be 115 feet high, matching the height of the main factory, and 450 feet square.

Inside, along the east and west walls, three stories of engineering offices will add 120,000 square feet of floor space for a total of about 350,000 square feet.

The robots used in building the 777X fuselage will not be fixed but will move along the assembly line on automated ground vehicles.

They will be used to assemble only the aft and forward fuselage sections. The plans state that the 777X midfuselage — where the wings connect — will also be in this building, although the process of putting that section together won’t change.

Cutting out crane moves could provide a major boost to the production rate, which Boeing aims to increase from 8.3 jets per month today to 10 or 12 jets per month, according to an engineer with knowledge of the plans. Over 16 months in 2012-13, engineers secretly developed and tested the technology inside a former boat-manufacturing facility on the waterfront in Anacortes.

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