Spirit AeroSystems intends to automate some aspects of its Boeing 737 Max fuselage production in a bid to improve quality, though the decades-old design of the narrowbody jet will limit the degree of modernisation available.

Because 737 production remains a highly manual process, Spirit is also taking steps to minimise production problems caused by human error.

“Our next wave of improvement will be the deployment of… automation for sections of the airplane that remain highly manual,” Spirit chief executive Patrick Shanahan said during the company’s 2023 earnings call on 6 February. “That is the fundamental solution to zero defects and zero [quality] escapes.”

Spirit 737 assembly-c-Spirit AeroSystems

Source: Spirit AeroSystems

Spirit aims to bring automation to a 737 fuselage production system that remains “highly manual”, says CEO Shanahan

Spirit has for several years been dealing with persistent quality shortcomings affecting various of its programmes, including high-profile and repeated issues with 737 and 787 structures. As recently as 4 February, Boeing said it had found incorrectly drilled holes in Spirit-supplied 737 fuselages.

Shanahan says automation will help rectify the problems.

“We have significant human-assisted technology… that we look to accelerate,” he says. “I have recently reviewed this technology with the team and will ensure it receives the appropriate resources and investments.”

He adds, however, that “full-scale robotics is impractical” for 737 fuselage production. Experts note that broad-scale automation of 737 fuselage production is tricky and impractical because Boeing designed the narrowbody family of jets around manual processes in the 1960s.

Spirit intends to focus its improvements on forward and aft fuselage sections – areas with “the most complex physical geometries and… the most confined workspaces”, Shanahan says. ”If you are a mechanic working in there, you’d almost have to be a gymnast.”

The company also intends to head off human errors through improved worker training and stepped up product testing.

“Our eye is toward finding the right balance of using human-assisted technology and automated technology. There is a path to deployment,” Shanahan says.