Boeings Humans Step in After Robots Fumble 777 Jet Assembly

Score one for the humans. After four years of trial and error, Boeing Co. is dumping one of its most ambitious forays into automation: the robots that build two main fuselage sections for its 777 jetliners and an upgraded version known as the 777X.
Instead, the Chicago-based planemaker will rely on skilled mechanics to manually insert fasteners into holes drilled along the circumference of the airplane by an automated system known as “flex tracks,” which it has honed over years of use on the 787 Dreamliner.

The shift to the new human-plus-machine system began during the second quarter and should be complete by years end, Boeing spokesman Paul Bergman said in a statement. Boeing doesnt plan any change in total staffing for its 777 jetliners, which are manufactured in Everett, Washington, about an hour north of Seattle.

“The flex track solution has proven more reliable, requiring less work by hand and less rework, than what the robots were capable of,” he said.

Automations Limits

As tempting as automation can be—with its promise of a mechanized workforce that never gets sick, tired or hungry—manufacturers are finding some cases where the technology cant match the dexterity, ingenuity, and precision of human hands and eyes.

Tesla Inc. famously tried to ditch workers for highly automated car and battery assembly lines that ended up undermining initial production of the Model 3 sedan.

Boeings fully automated initiative—known as FAUB, for fuselage automated upright build—relied on robots working in tandem to drill holes precisely and fasten together metal panels held upright to create the outer frame of the hulking twin-engine jets.

The technology was the handiwork of KUKA Systems, a company with deep automobile manufacturing roots. It was intended to replace the human mechanics who used hand-held tools to insert 60,000 rivets into each plane. The robots were showcased as part of the advanced manufacturing that Boeing is pioneering on the 777X, and that it plans to expand to future jetliner programs next decade.

A spokeswoman for Advanced Integration Technology, which bought the KUKA division that made Boeings robots, declined to comment on the planemakers decision to switch to a different technology.

Out of Sync

But the planemaker struggled to keep the robots moving in sync on the outside and inside of the fuselage panels, creating production snarls when it first introduced the FAUB technology to the legacy 777 line. A Seattle Times report from 2016 described a swell of worker overtime and incomplete jobs that were finished after jets rolled out of the factory.

“It was hard. It took years off my life,” Jason Clark, a Boeing vice president overseeing 777X production, said during an interview earlier this year.

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