At the Farnborough Air Show Monday, Boeing said the secretive automation process it’s been developing over more than a year for building the fuselage of the 777, which has been undergoing testing inside a facility in Anacortes, is in the final phase of testing and production readiness.
Boeing said the 777X fuselage, which will be assembled in a new building now under construction in Everett, “will be built using automated, guided robots that will fasten the panels of the fuselage together, drilling and filling the more than approximately 60,000 fasteners that are today installed by hand.”
Boeing spokeswoman Elizabeth Fischtziur said the new robotic system “will be implemented first on today’s 777” and once its high rate production capabilities are validated it “is expected to be baseline to 777X fuselage production.”
The advanced manufacturing system, known as the Fuselage Automated Upright Build, or FAUB, was designed for Boeing by German robotics company KUKA Systems.
The fuselage is built by fastening together very large, curved aluminum panels shipped from Mitsubishi, Kawasaki and Fuji Heavy Industries in Japan. Boeing said automating the process will improve safety and quality, and reduce the time needed to build the fuselages.
“This is the first time such technology will be used by Boeing,” Elizabeth Lund, vice president of the 777 program and general manager of the Everett site, said in a statement. “We’re positioning ourselves to begin building 777X airplanes in the future.”
Asked if the automation of a process now done with more manual labor would impact jobs, Fischtziur said that during the testing phase, Boeing will assess the precise size of the workforce required to support the system.
“Then, as we implement, employees currently building the fuselage sections will either transition to working with FAUB or move to other positions on the 777 program or to other programs where there is demand for their skill set,” Fischtziur said.
That seems to mean that while the workforce assembling the 777X fuselages may eventually end up smaller than it is today, Boeing doesn’t anticipate any layoffs as it implements this robotic system.
“Our goal is to transition employees to other positions where we can make the most of their skills,” said Fischtziur.
Boeing said the testing is well advanced, and engineers are getting the system ready for production.
Jon Holden, president of Machinists District 751, which represents assembly workers at Boeing, said the company has told the union its members will operate and maintain those machines but hasn’t given details.
“We have asked exactly how introduction of this technology will impact our members, but have received no definitive answers from Boeing,” Holden said in an email. “Our concern and focus remains on preserving every member’s job.”