The aerospace industry’s gradual adoption of automation faces unique challenges due to its strict safety standards and complex regulations. While automation could improve efficiency and profitability, the industry must grapple with concerns such as return on investment, part tracking, and the retraining of workers. The integration of automation systems can enhance worker safety by handling repetitive and physically demanding tasks. Tailoring automation solutions to individual shop needs, considering support and training, and fostering ongoing conversations between suppliers and manufacturers are essential for successful implementation in this highly specialized field. Collaboration and customization are key in the journey toward aerospace automation.
The aerospace industry is one of the last manufacturing sectors to fully incorporate the most recent automation applications, even though no industry is better structured to benefit from such technologies.
Aerospace factories bring a considerable amount of caution to any change in manufacturing. Millions of people’s lives depend on the performance of their parts, and their tolerances are some of the tightest in the machining world. Many changes require FAA analysis and approval.
As aerospace customers request price reductions and change delivery timelines, profit margins shrink. Often, automation solutions are a viable option. But what manufacturers don’t know about automation can hurt them. There needs to be an ongoing conversation between automation suppliers and aerospace manufacturers that covers the most pertinent concerns surrounding implementation.
Return on investment is the foremost concern. The lauded part consistency and increased machine optimization mean nothing without documentation. An integral part of implementation in any industry is how an automation system tracks, analyzes and reports production metrics. For aerospace, tracking is even more critical. Standards such as AS9100 mean that each part must be traced and documented during every manufacturing step.
Our Factory Cockpit can display machine utilization and availability metrics for quick reference during manufacturing. At a glance, operators can immediately know how well the floor is running, or pull up detailed data on downtime, error logs and comprehensive department KPI reports. At any time, users can access a part and see when it was introduced, units in planning or production, as well as materials and tools. Automation discussions should hinge on how the system will prove its worth in a configurable, real-time interface.
The general reaction to an automation representative in a shop is one of trepidation or contempt. It’s natural—operators don’t want to lose their jobs to a machine. But we’ve found that the installation of the right automation system has no effect on the number of jobs at a factory. It’s a matter of retraining and reallocating people’s skills. The system itself is just a mechanical device; it can’t and won’t replace humans.
One of the biggest selling points in a recent aerospace installation was the benefit to shop workers. Repetitive task injuries are common as operators manipulate sizable and unwieldy parts every day. That’s where automation can help. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) specialize in moving loads up to 60,000 kgs inside an unmanned workspace. At the installation site, the use of AGVs eliminated forklift traffic in one section of the factory. Not only did it free up those operators for other jobs, it also reduced safety hazards. Once the part or material is delivered to the correct cell, the automated pallet takes over. The system loads to and unloads from multiple connected machining units, eliminating the need for human setups.
Every aerospace shop will have its own applications and specialties. Matching solutions to each is critical. Automation suppliers can provide various options and then optimize each for specific areas. Examples include manufacturing management software, gantry-style tool systems, auto-loading devices, and automated storage and retrieval systems.
Having invested in an automation system that fundamentally changes the way a shop runs only to find it unnavigable can be terrifying. Any continued support needs to be discussed. Many auto cells are directed by a programmable logic controller for which users need a certain amount of programming experience to run. Some systems run on more intuitive user interfaces, while training might be suggested or even required. Will the automation supplier provide that?
The best conversation happens over the course of multiple meetings. The automation supplier should be inquisitive of a shop’s most pressing issues, cognisant of regulations and quality standards, and creative enough to customise application-specific solutions. The shop should be prepared with as much data as possible. Such give-and-take consultations will determine the success of any automation project.
By Bob Baldizzi, Regional Sales Manager, Eastern USA, Fastems LLC.