This is one of the most visible signs of a push by Boeing to increasingly automate the assembly of Boeing’s largest twin-engine jetliner, which is now 90 percent built by hand, said Jason Clark, director of 777 operations.
Clark guided a group of journalists around the 777 line in Everett Wednesday, as part of Boeing’s briefing leading up to the Paris Air Show. The briefing continues Thursday.
The automation is part of a campaign by Boeing to raise quality and lower costs as it competes against Airbus for market share and prepares for a future when China will enter the wide-body aircraft market.
In addition to the automated wing painting system, which started in February, Boeing also has been using a robotic drilling machine to drill rivet holes in the 777’s metal fuselage, although the rivets still are set by hand. An automated floor drilling machine also is operating, and is three to four times faster than the previous approach.
“It’s a transition of workforce, putting the right tools in the hands of mechanics,” Clark said. “It moved them up to a higher technical role, a little less craftsmanship.”
The twin painting machines have almost instantly proven themselves, cutting the application of one coat of paint from four-and-a-half hours to 24 minutes, he said. The paint is so controlled that the company has even been able to reduce the weight of paint on a wing by 70 pounds.
The machines also have cut the need for human painters in half, from 30 on a shift to 15, but Clark said the work was so unpleasant and repetitive that most workers don’t mind.
“No layoffs occurred because of the transition to this technology,” he said, contending workers were transferred to other tasks.
Union leaders were not immediately available for comment. But while labor leaders often complain about automation leading to workforce reductions, Boeing's unions also have recognized the need for the company to remain competitive in order to keep airplane production in Puget Sound.
The painting arms, supplied by ABB Group, a huge Swiss automation and robotics company, looked like dragon heads as they swiftly moved over a 777 wing in the painting room Wednesday.
The existing machines have more than enough capacity to support the current 777 production rate of 8.3 planes per month, and the painting system’s capacity could be quickly increased by adding more machines to the same room, Clark said. The room also is large enough to handle the planned 777X composite wing, he added.
Just outside the wing painting area is a large vertical structure where workers until recently hand-painted wings for the 777. Now that structure is unused, and probably will be replaced.
Jordan said the push to automate 777 production is just beginning, adding that he and other factory leaders have been actively visiting auto manufacturers to better understand how they’re automated.
Some automakers are 90 percent automated, such as a BMW plant in Germany Jordan visited that was producing 1,000 cars a day, he said.
Clark said Boeing wants to move in that direction, although the lower rate of aircraft production, and far more complicated process, suggests that this will take years.
Increasing use of automation could help Boeing compete against future Chinese aircraft builders, he said.