Airbus is investing in automation to tackle huge backlogs for its commercial jetliners. The European company plans to boost output of its most popular airplane, the A320, over the next few years.

By 2018, Airbus expects to raise production rates from 42 planes a month to 50 units. It eventually plans to crank up A320 production to 60 planes a month at its factories in China, France, Germany and the United States. That kind of production volume, which would be unprecedented in the commercial aerospace industry, will require automated assembly lines.

ASSEMBLY Magazine recently asked Bernard Duprieu, head of manufacturing technologies research at the Airbus Centre of Competence, Industrial Strategy and System, to discuss the company’s FuturAssy automation strategy.

ASSEMBLY: What is FuturAssy? What is the goal of the project?

DUPRIEU: FuturAssy is a project where we are investigating applications for dual-arm robots based on the HIRO (human interactive robot) system developed by Kawada Industries Inc. We are creating some elementary technology bricks that will be used in future Airbus standard robotic workcells.

ASSEMBLY: What is the status of your recent project to automate the assembly of aircraft structures?

DUPRIEU: Many automated cells are already deployed. Generally, this has been done with monuments like static machine cells and autonomous heavy robotic platforms. But, interaction with humans is very limited. Today, these systems can move around large structures and slightly adapt their motion planning to unfixtured workpieces. This type of system is expensive and requires a highly skilled workforce to maintain it.

Thanks to production rate increases on some of our assembly lines, we can afford this type of investment. We are currently implementing many systems in our factories. From an R&D perspective, we are focusing on how to decrease acquisition cost and implementation time. Unfortunately, many currently available autonomous robots are not compliant with most assembly operations, such as working inside fuselages and wings.

ASSEMBLY: How successful has the Futurassy project been so far?

DUPRIEU: The first application of the HIRO humanoid robot will soon be used in a preproduction environment. The dual-arm machines have already been deployed for use on theA380 rudder spar assembly station. The system will also be used in non-added-value operations, such as deburring holes and handling ribs and other light parts. We are conducting other tests with collaborative robots such as Kuka’s IIWA and Universal Robots’ UR5 and UR10.

Thanks to these developments, we are pushing the extreme limits of modular design, neutral interface and standard process engines. The goal is to slash development cost and time by enabling the reuse of existing modules for aircraft assembly. This cohesive system will enable wide dissemination of automated systems to enhance ergonomic performance. It will also help eliminate non-added-value, laborious operations where our high skilled employees are not required.

ASSEMBLY: What prompted Airbus to pursue an automation strategy?

DUPRIEU: Production rate increases and decreasing costs of acquiring this technology. We cannot continue with business as usual. We have a great opportunity with the increase in volumes to bring more efficient design and more automation into the manufacturing process where it’s appropriate and makes sense.

ASSEMBLY: What are the benefits of using automation in aircraft assembly applications?

DUPRIEU: Automation improves ergonomic conditions and product quality. It enables us to bring more quality and more of a fail-safe approach to the manufacturing process. Automation and intelligence can adapt to the large pieces we build for aircraft, with all the geometry issues and customization that goes with it. Artificial and adaptive intelligence will allow robots and tools to sense where parts are and what adjustments they need to make to do the job. We are adapting to the industrial internet of things and learning how to optimize the production system.

ASSEMBLY: Did your engineering team turn to the automotive industry for ideas or inspiration?

DUPRIEU: It’s important not to reinvent the wheel. We have adopted mass production solutions from industries where efficient solutions have already been developed and where assembly is done very fast compared to our standard time frame.

ASSEMBLY: What types of assembly tasks are you using robots for?

DUPRIEU: A modular approach enables us to build up end effector families for a variety of production operations, such as drilling, fastener insertion and tightening. The success of this R&D global plan should enable us to incrementally and widely deploy lightweight, collaborative, autonomous automated solutions in our Factory of the Future. But, the long-term goal is to keep Airbus’ highly skilled workers at the center of our production process.