To fill an impressive number of orders, the aircraft manufacturer uses the digital high-speed production expertise of the VINCI Energies brand.
To meet the very high level of orders for its bestselling A320, Airbus needs to sharply increase its production rate to ultimately produce 70 aircraft per month. The speed-up is “huge”, says VINCI Energies Regional Industry Director Didier Richard. The Actemium Trappes business unit was awarded the Airbus contract to build a new assembly plant for the rear fuselage of the narrow-body aircraft, which will produce 41 planes per month.
To optimise construction of the two enormous tubes that form the rear half of the A320, Actemium Trappes designed and implemented automation processes that have proved themselves in the automotive industry, but have not been used before in aerospace production. Robots were included in the assembly lines to perform the drilling and riveting needed to join the fuselage parts (between 7,000 and 8,000 rivets are used in the assembly process). Digital technologies were also called on to align the sections, which are positioned by laser.
Actemium designed and implemented automation processes that have proved themselves in the automotive industry, but have not been used before in aerospace production.
The dimensions of the parts to be handled and the special shape of the aircraft make adapting the process, which is commonly used in other industries, particularly complex. And automation has limits. “We can automate 20% of the tasks,” says Didier Richard, “but the other 80% need to remain manual.” The real challenge for Airbus is the production rate, he adds, and in that respect “Actemium provides expertise in high-speed production, with sequential and takt time.”
The productivity gains from using digital technologies involve issues specific to the aerospace sector: huge parts (where three metres are required to assemble a car on the production line, 12 are needed for an aircraft section), highly complex geometry and sensitive operator ergonomics issues. Some of the drilling and riveting operations have been successfully automated, but most operations must still be carried out manually by an operator, who is sometimes required to work in acrobatic positions due to the shape of the plane.
Lastly, tolerancing is also a very important part of the equation, which resembles getting a camel through the eye of the needle. “We need to assemble huge parts with a precision of two-tenths of a millimetre,” says Didier Richard.
Each technology building block integrated by Actemium helps to increase production speeds, which will reach 15 planes per month by the end of 2019, and 41 after the ramp-up phase. Mobile, retractable platforms will take the plane from one station to another. Actemium will integrate the Flextrack robot, another building block supported by digital technology. The drilling machine is positioned on a rail to form the longitudinal seams. Digital technology is also used during the inspection phases to ensure the quality of assembly.
Despite all these constraints, Airbus qualified the first plane to come off the new assembly line using the innovative processes as the most precise fuselage ever assembled.