(Reuters) - Boeing Co has abandoned a key automation system used to make fuselage sections for its 777 jetliners amid reports of reliability issues, and will instead partially switch back to mechanics, the planemaker said on Thursday. The company began to build 777 fuselages in 2015 in an upright orientation, with robots drilling holes and installing fasteners, an initiative known as fuselage automated upright build (FAUB). The world's biggest planemaker said it had stopped using the system which, according to industry sources, caused problems with reliability and rework issues. Boeing had faced delays last year when the FAUB machine was tried out on existing versions of the 777. Instead, the company will switch to "flex tracks" - an automated method to drill the holes along the circumference of the airplane that are then fastened manually.
Believe me, there is more to it than meets the eye. By far, I underscore it, by far not all things could be done by manipulators (aka industrial robots) and especially so in the aerospace industry where only humans can provide for a foreseeable future required input and actual quality control. Training, qualifications, education become a decisive factor. I will not disclose any secret that many companies in aerospace prefer human layup of aircraft composite parts to any "machine laying", granted that machines can do only few and less complex parts anyway. And then comes the issue of Quality Control. Yes, there are machines involved in it, many machines, some of them very sophisticated, but in the end it comes down to human supervision and decision making process that define if the aircraft flies or it fails. It is good news that Boeing made this decision--in the end, it is Quality Inspector who answers for the aircraft, not some machine which can do only so much.
This brings a larger issue to the fore--naked numbers on "robotization" which all kinds of white board trained MBAs love to operate with, in no way defines the "strength" or otherwise of economy. Robots are useful and they will continue to be deployed but they are merely tools and sometimes can be harmful due to bad engineering and design. Boeing provided today an excellent example of that. It is one thing to drill a substandard hole in a car on the conveyor, totally another--to do so on a commercial or military aircraft. Lives of people who fly it, including those on the ground, depend on that and no amount of bookkeeping and abstract economic data can ever substitute ethical and professional attitude of people making planes. This is a real hi-tech I am talking about, not assembly of iPhones or CGI. Only designers, engineers and, in the end, production floor manufacturing specialists can have a decisive input on the production issues.