Within a few months, the world’s busiest widebody aircraft assembly line will change again. Mobile robotic carts will begin replacing human workers shuttling parts and tools to machinists assembling Boeing 787s in Everett, Washington. Each automated cart will bear kits loaded with precisely enough gear to occupy a machinist for 2h. As each kit is exhausted, the mobile assistant will reappear with a fresh kit, restarting the machinists’ 2h clock.

The attraction of automated guide vehicles (AGVs) in aerospace factories is not new. In West Handa, Japan, Boeing’s composite centre wing box supplier Fuji Heavy Industries already loads structures into autoclaves using AGVs, which charmingly play Japanese karaoke tunes in an effort to alert human workers of their presence as they roll through the factory.

But Boeing is using AGVs for the first time as a means to enable an automotive-like system that precisely measures and monitors work flow through the factory on a minute-by-minute basis.

“Whereas we used to think about days, weeks, months, we now think about minutes in this programme,” says Walt Odisho, Boeing’s new vice-president of manufacturing and safety. Boeing hired Odisho from Toyota, where he managed a factory in Kentucky that builds 2,000 cars every day.

The move to an automotive-style work management system represents yet another in a series of transformations for Boeing’s 10-year-old 787 assembly line in Everett as the programme celebrates two milestones. Boeing delivered the first 787 to All Nippon Airways on 26 September five years ago. More recently, the 500th 787 fuselage entered Boeing’s final assembly system in mid-September.

It would have been difficult to conceive of the second milestone to those present at the first. On that drizzly, unseasonably cool day in Seattle, Boeing was only two months removed from a 20-day work stoppage on the 787 line in July 2011, the fifth such production halt in Everett during a development phase delayed by 3.5 years. More production troubles would follow over the next two years, but the Everett assembly line and second line opened in South Carolina in 2012 finally recovered. Despite early assembly challenges in Charleston and tardy interiors suppliers, Boeing managed to raise output to 12 per month across both lines.

“If you listen to the factory, it’s humming,” Odisho says.

The production system’s recovery, however, has come at great cost. Boeing’s deferred production costs on the 787 programme peaked at $28.7 billion in the first quarter of this year, assessing a roughly $30 million tax on all remaining deliveries in the 1,300-unit accounting block. For Boeing to make any profit on its hefty investment, the 787 production system must continue to grow more efficient. The system also could accommodate another monthly rate increase, to 14, at the end of the decade.

787 production

Static assembly stations at Boeing's Everett plant will receive kits of parts and tools by unmanned vehicle every two hours, boosting efficiency


Hence, the planned introduction of the parts-toting AGVs. In a tour of the assembly line earlier this year, a navigational magnetic strip wound around the final body-join area, also known as Position 1B. Boeing had already ordered the first AGVs for delivery by the end of this year. Beginning in early 2017, AGVs will be introduced on one of the five assembly positions on the Everett line, says Kim Pastega, Boeing’s vice-president for the 787 programme.

Using magnetic strips to guide the AGVs is cheaper than more advanced navigation systems, such as augmented GPS-based technology, Odisho says.

During a walking tour of the line, Odisho pointed out three workers rolling carts stuffed with kitted parts to workers on the assembly line. The AGVs will replace those workers, who could be reassigned to other roles in the factory, he adds.

By automating the delivery system, Boeing expects a recent switch to a 2h-sized kit of parts and tools will become more efficient. Since the Everett assembly line opened, a team of Boeing workers in the Manufacturing Integration Center prepared work packages for machinists on the line. More recently, Boeing inventoried every step in the production process and calculated how long it takes to perform each one. The company then broke down those steps into 2h segments.

As a former Toyota executive, Odisho is more familiar with an automotive standard that measures work actions in seconds, but he understands aviation is different.

“That’s not practical in this industry. We can’t move that fast because of the size of product we worked with. We thought about it – how big our package should be. So we went with two hours,” Odisho explains.

For years, Boeing has talked about eventually moving the 787 production system to a moving line. That option remains in discussion, but in the meantime the 2h kitting system is expected to produce a similar result in workflow efficiency.

“A moving line allows you to see progress,” Odisho says.

If a problem, such as a missing part or tool, arises on a moving line, the movement is stopped until the issue is resolved. In Boeing’s system, the 787s remain static: the inventory of parts is moving around the aircraft in precisely measured, 2h increments.

“If we can track progress accurately on that then essentially we can create the same effect [as a moving line],” Odisho says.

Although robotic vehicles are entering a line populated by hundreds of works, Boeing seems more worried about the integration challenge on the back-end. For the automatically replenished, 2h-kitting system to work, the company’s logistics hub at the Manufacturing Integration Center must keep a precise record of inventory consumed and on hand. As each new 2h work package comes due, the parts from an extended global supply chain must be on the shelf and ready to be installed on the aircraft.

The 787 assembly line has had several major iterations since 2007. In the beginning, a massive structure dubbed the Mother of All Tooling Towers (MOATT) sat in Position 1, holding the fuselage in place as it lifted the horizontal tail and vertical fin into place. As the 787 production system stalled in 2008, the MOATT was one of the first casualties.

Still more changes were visible on the line between tours in the summer of 2015 and this year. The former Position 1 was long ago split into two positions, with wing-to-body join in Position 1A and final body join in Position 1B. Boeing’s original system installed the landing gear in Position 2, but this step has been moved up to Position 1B as well.

A year ago, Position 1B was engulfed in a heavy tooling apparatus. The bulky structure held the airframe in place during the join, but then had to be broken part and moved away so the landing gear could be installed. Within the last 12 months, Boeing has replaced that tooling system with a lighter and more flexible jig. It is able to lift upward when the fuselage is raised, to install the landing gear. That change alone, although expensive, saved a half day of production flow, Pastega says.

In this position, however, the Everett line lags behind the system established on the four-year-old assembly line in Charleston. There, Boeing’s machinists complete wing-to-body join and final body join in the same position, as the original plan stipulated. Coming full circle, Charleston’s Position 1 will be replicated in the future on the line in Everett, Pastega says.

“If there’s anything you know about us,” she says, “it’s that change is constant. We’re continuing to drive the flow.”

Source: Cirium Dashboard