Boeing is in an enviable position. It’s currently sitting atop a huge backlog for commercial airliners, such as the 737MAX, 777X and 787. In fact, the aerospace giant currently has more than 5,000 aircraft on order, valued at more than $440 billion.

To address that dilemma, Boeing needs to automate its factories. Its arch-rival, Airbus, has already embarked on an ambitious project called FUTURASSY, which aims to provide “a harmonized robotic solution designed to automate aeronautical assembly processes” (among other things, it plans to deploy humanoid robots to help human assemblers rivet airframes).

During the Society of Manufacturing Engineers’ AeroDef Manufacturing Summit in Long Beach, CA, earlier this week, a leading supplier told me that Boeing plans to invest $1.2 billion on automation over the next few years. Most of that money will be allocated to state-of-the-art robots for drilling, fastener insertion, riveting, sealing, coating and painting applications, in addition to material handling, carbon-fiber layup and machining operations, such as deburring and shot peening.

The keynote speaker at AeroDef was Gerould Young, director of materials and manufacturing technology at Boeing Research & Technology. He heads a team of 1,000 engineers who are developing next-generation materials and production processes for a wide variety of current and future Boeing products.

While Young did not affirm the staggering capital equipment allocation that I heard, he did acknowledge that automation will play a key role in Boeing’s future. “Automation can improve our cost, quality and production rates,” he told the audience.

According to Young, Boeing is moving toward “flexible, agile systems” that feature “an integrated family of robots, low-cost intelligent systems and lightweight flexible equipment.” However, he warned that numerous challenges still face his team.

For example, Young said Boeing engineers are exploring new applications for robotic riveting. “Replacing human riveting personnel with dual-robotic systems is challenging,” he explained. “A tremendous amount of knowledge and data is required to automate riveting.”

But, Young claims that Boeing is migrating toward automated factories that feature “miniaturization, multiple end effectors, multiple robots, and a computer-intense system with a lot of intelligence built-in.”

Young also pointed out some of the key differences between embracing automation in the auto industry vs. commercial aerospace. For instance, tolerances are much higher in aerospace, while the average subassembly size is larger and heavier. Production volumes in aerospace are also much smaller than in the auto industry, while the life expectancy of the products being produced is much higher.

“Aerospace automation is not easy,” warned Young. “We’re learning from the auto industry. At the same time, we’re trying to attack the challenges [that are unique to] aerospace.

“Scale, complexity and structural integration make automation challenging for fabrication processes,” said Young. “Automation optimization for capital costs, rate and number of units has a learning curve. New skills in simulation, sensors, data, computers, integration and robotics will be required to transform our factories for the future.”

Do you think Airbus and Boeing will be successful with their automation quest? How will they manufacture at rates that are much higher than in the past? Will robotics transform the aerospace industry? Will we ever see a day when an entire fuselage or wing is assembled entirely by robots?