Aerospace looks to robotic systems as orders backlog grows

Jason Ford - News Editor, The EngineerJason Ford, news editor

The Paris Air Show launches next week with business appearing to be brisk for UK companies supplying the aerospace sector.

Trade body ADS announced on 30 May, 2017 that the worldwide backlog of aircraft orders stands at over 13,300, which is the fifth highest level recorded. So far this year, companies have delivered 406 aircraft, which has an estimated value of £8bn to UK industry. Of this figure, £5.5bn is attributed to deliveries of 109 wide-body aircraft and £2.5bn to single-aisle aircraft.

More normally associated with Everett, north of Seattle in Washington State, Boeing today reiterated its contribution to the UK economy with figures that show a tripling of direct spending with UK suppliers to £2.1bn over the past six years. According to Boeing, this has helped to support around 16,500 jobs, which increased by 80 per cent over the same period.

Furthermore, the company’s payroll includes 2,200 employees in the UK who are supporting local airline, military and security customers.

“Boeing continues to find significant talent and supply chain capability, a strong market and world-class partners in the UK,” said Sir Michael Arthur, president of Boeing Europe and managing director of Boeing UK and Ireland.

Earlier in the year The Engineer reported on Boeing’s plans to open its first manufacturing plant in Europe with a facility in Sheffield that will produce trailing-edge actuation systems for Next-Generation 737, 737 MAX and 777 aircraft.

The £20m investment by Boeing is part of broader plans to for the US aviation giant to ‘begin in-house manufacturing of actuation components and systems in the US and Britain.’

Whilst not leaving aerospace OEMs hamstrung, there are elements within production processes that that would benefit from the help of robotic tools, such as in riveting, which can have detrimental physical effects on the people performing the job.

To this end, Boeing has introduced FAUB (Fuselage Automated Upright Build) on its 777 line in Everett.

Meanwhile, Airbus is also no stranger to robotic systems, as research investigating the feasibility of co-robotic systems (co-bots) has shown, a situation reflected at Ford Motor Company, where co-bots are being assessed across a range of assembly line tasks.

More broadly, a report from Markets and Markets shows that the aerospace robotics market is projected to grow from $1.81bn in 2016 to $4.54bn by 2022, at a compound annual growth rate of 16.55 per cent. Increasing use of robots for efficient aircraft production, growing use of robotics to handle aircraft order backlogs, and increasing labour costs are factors identified in the report as driving the aerospace robotics market.

The 52nd Paris Air Show will take place at the Le Bourget Parc des Expositions from 19 to 25 June 2017. Following Paris, UK Robotics Week starts on 24 June, with robotics and autonomous systems  taking centre stage.

As well as celebrating Britain’s strengths in robotics and autonomous systems, the event will seek to ‘engage the nation’s schools, colleges and universities in developing the digital skills needed to drive the UK’s future economy’.

In his piece titled UK must rise to robotics and AI challenge (link below), Prof Guang-Zhong Yang, Chair of the EPSRC UK-Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) Network, discusses UK Robotics Week, and the significance of robotics and AI innovation in the government’s recently announced Industrial Strategy.

According to Prof Yang, Robotics Week will feature four Challenges:

  • Robotics for Social Care and Independent Living – showcasing how robots can be integrated into the healthcare services of the future in order to help address the predicted steeply rising costs and strain of healthcare provision and services in the UK.
  • Robotics for Surgery and Global Health: from Macro to Micro – the aim of this challenge is to create new concepts for affordable systems especially with potential for applications in the developing world.
  • Robotics for Emergency Response, Disaster Relief and Resilience – this challenge is to build robust emergency response systems that can be exploited in extreme environments, such as in collapsed buildings following an earthquake or terrorist attacks, and in Polar Regions for monitoring indicators of climate change.
  • Robotics for Resilient Infrastructure – demonstrating RAS capabilities in scenarios for inspection, repair and maintenance of critical infrastructures, including nuclear, offshore energy, space, civil infrastructure, transport (rail, road, sea).

More on these challenges – and importance of robotics and RAS to the UK economy – can be found at UK must rise to robotics and AI challenge