Is technology advanced enough to allow the use of robots in aircraft manufacturing?
In the past few decades, the volume of air traffic has soured and is expected to triple by 2030. At Frankfurt’s International Airport, over 1,300 departures and arrivals are handled by the flight tower every single day. This equates to about 155,000 passengers who pass through the Frankfurt airport on a daily basis. For this figure to be covered by aircraft manufacturers, a modernization of their production processes is but necessary.
Manual Aircraft Assembly
Since the early beginnings of the aircraft industry, the assembly and manufacture of aircraft involved a high proportion of manual processes, requiring great attention to details. This limits production output. Many of these manual processes can be automated in order to increase the production rate except the wing assembly which remains a major challenge.
The manufacturing and assembly of aircraft wings involves a complicated internal structure of the wings consisting of hollow chambers, with access provided by the narrow hatches 45 cm long and 25 cm wide. The limitation in access makes it extremely difficult for assembly workers to reach through these openings in order to fit the bolts and aluminum rivets that hold the parts together and seal the joints. Each wingbox requires repetitive drilling, riveting and sealing procedures of approximately 3,000 times, indicative of the time-consuming work this process entails. This particular assembly point demands intensive physical strength from the assembly workers which quickly leads to fatigue. The volatile organic compounds released by the sealing materials also pose some health risks to the workers.
Conventional Industrial Robots
While conventional industrial robots are available for use in manufacturing by different industries, their rigid arms are not flexible enough to pass through narrow openings and are not able to reach the outermost regions in a workspace that is up to 5 meters long. For this particular aircraft assembly task, a slim robot with articulated arms would be ideal.
VALERI (Validation of Advanced, Collaborative Robotics for Industrial Applications) is a €3.6m European Union project of the key players in the aircraft industry. It is created to develop a mobile robotic system which could carry out repeated and boring assembly tasks such as applying sealants in hard-to-reach spaces. The robot should be able to move autonomously, identify real aircraft elements or parts, solve tasks independently and without putting the aircraft workers at risk. The research teams from the Fraunhofer Institute for Machine Tools and Forming Technology IWU are expected to deliver the first unit for real-life testing at the Airbus facilities by October 2015.
The automation solution is counting on the robot’s articulated arms to wind its way through the narrow openings like a snake and which are flexible enough to reach the furthermost regions of the workspace with a limited access point. The robot’s articulated arms consist of 8-series of connected elements which would allow them to be rotated or inclined within a very narrow radius, permitting entry and reaching the furthest extremities of the wingbox cavities. The researchers have aptly nicknamed the robot, the “snake robot”.
Depending on the results of testing next year, the project’s next stage is the production of a 60-kg robot installed on a mobile platform or rails that would allow it to travel along the length of the wingbox to penetrate each chamber. Currently, the researchers from IWU are testing the mechanical design and control functions of the “Snake Robot”.
Will the Snake Robot live up to the task?