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Originally published April 8, 2014 at 1:46 PM | Page modified April 10, 2014 at 6:23 AM

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Boeing will use robotic technology to speed 777X fuselage work

Boeing will build a new 777X fuselage assembly building alongside its Everett plant to house the robotic assembly technology refined and tested last year in a secret facility in Anacortes.


Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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Boeing plans to deploy robotic assembly technology on the 777X that will dramatically change the way the plane’s metal hull is built, documents submitted to the city of Everett indicate.

The automation technology, replacing a crane and a giant cylindrical fixture now used to laboriously turn the half-built fuselage midway through its production, should allow Boeing to increase its 777 production rate beyond the current 100 jets per year.

The technology, refined and tested last year in a secret facility in Anacortes, will be incorporated into a new 777X fuselage-assembly building described in the city planning documents.

Because the 777X fuselage sections will always be right-side up as they are assembled from large curved panels, Boeing has dubbed the system the “Fuselage Automated Upright Build” process.

Boeing’s plans state that no change in employment numbers is expected from the automation.

The new 777X fuselage-assembly building is separate from the much larger, 1.3 million-square-foot 777X composite-wing facility for which plans have also been submitted.

The final assembly line for the 777X, where the fuselage sections will be joined and the composite wings attached, is expected to be in the main factory, replacing what is today a temporary “surge” line for 787 Dreamliner production.

The fuselage building will be just east of the main factory assembly buildings and connected to an existing seal-and-paint building. The southern wall of the seal-and-paint building will be removed so that 40-ton overhead cranes can move freely between the two facilities.

It will be 115 feet high, matching the height of the main factory, and 450 feet square.

Inside, along the east and west walls, three stories of engineering offices will add 120,000 square feet of floor space for a total of about 350,000 square feet.

The robots used in building the 777X fuselage will not be fixed, but will move along the assembly line on automated ground vehicles.

They will be used to assemble only the aft and forward fuselage sections. The plans state that the 777X mid-fuselage — where the wings connect — will also be in this building, although the process of putting that section together won’t change.

In building the current 777, mechanics first assemble the lower halves of the fuselages from large, curved aluminum panels — dubbed “super panels” — supplied by Mitsubishi and Kawasaki of Japan.

To ensure perfect alignment, these lower fuselage half-shells are constructed upside down on top of the precisely positioned passenger-floor grid.

Once that’s done, a crane lifts the structure into the turn fixture, which flips the part 180 degrees.

The crane then lifts the half-fuselage out and places it back, now right side up, in the assembly fixture, where mechanics then complete the upper half.

Each crane move is a major operation that must be performed slowly and meticulously to avoid damage to the structure or danger to anyone below the dangling part.

The current 777 assembly line today sees about 39 crane moves each day compared with about 7 per day on the more flexible 787 line in the adjacent bay.

So cutting out crane moves could provide a major boost to the production rate, which Boeing aims to increase from 8.3 jets per month today to 10 or 12 jets per month, according to an engineer with knowledge of the plans.

Boeing will not disclose the details of the robotic-automation process it has devised.

Over 16 months in 2012-13, engineers secretly developed and tested the technology far from prying eyes inside a former boat-manufacturing facility on the waterfront in Anacortes.

“We have a very robust plan to improve overall efficiency of 777 production and will discuss it publicly at the appropriate juncture,” said Boeing spokesman Doug Alder.

The document it submitted to the city planning department in February shows the new building’s floor layout with three lines of assembly cells and three big south-facing doors.

One line of cells is for assembling the forward fuselage, another is for the aft fuselage. The third line of cells includes space for staging the big aluminum panels.

The timeline laid out in the planning documents shows construction was scheduled to begin no later than last month, with the building shell to be complete by spring next year and the project finished by December 2016.

The composite-wing facility has a similar construction schedule. Production of the 777X is set to begin in 2017, with first delivery targeted for 2020.

As with the wing facility, one major problem with adding the new building is the loss of about 810 employee parking spaces. Parking is so tight at the plant that many employees must walk long distances from their cars to get to the factory.

Boeing’s plan includes construction of a new 300-stall parking lot on an empty three-acre site that was formerly a gun club at Airport Way and 29th Avenue West, just south and east of the Paine Field flight line.

Boeing is separately negotiating to lease 1,000 parking spaces nearby and plans to provide employee shuttles from smaller existing lots on its properties at the south end of the airport.

The plans call for a tunnel under the new building to allow access from the east parking lot to the main factory.

In the process of winning the 777X for Washington, both the state and the city of Everett promised Boeing a prompt permitting process to speed the construction work along.

Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com



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