Robots and cobots in aviation

From robots to cobots – part one

Reiner Hertl
3 pictures
4 minutes

From riveting robots to nanorobots that find problems in engines, robotics is the technology of the future. Robotization and automation are here to stay. We are seeing increasing cooperation and collaboration between humans and robots within aircraft construction. A journey through production, testing, maintenance and Industrie 4.0:

Complexity of robot use in the aviation industry

While some areas in aviation, such as assembly, are already largely automated, many work processes still occur manually. However, robot-assisted production, testing and maintenance processes are constantly evolving. The use of robots in the aviation industry is more complex than that of the automotive industry, mainly because many aviation components are custom-made and batch sizes and quantities tend to be lower than in car-making. In the automotive industry, robots usually perform repetitive movements, in aircraft construction however, constantly varying angles, material thicknesses and diameters have to be handled, for example when riveting and drilling on the fuselage.

“New digital technologies open up completely new possibilities for optimizing production processes and thus increasing efficiency. Keywords such as intelligent and automated production, robotics and artificial intelligence in industry are becoming tangible and understandable in the aerospace industry, especially here in the ZAL.” Thomas Jarzombek, aerospace coordinator of the federal German government, in his keynote on the ZAL Innovation Days at the end of February. Here at the Aviation Cluster Hamburg, the third largest civil aviation location in the world, the Center for Applied Aeronautical Research became, for the second time, a hotspot of developments, hosting a specialist and innovation conference. The topics: “human-machine collaborations” and “automated & autonomous robots”:

ZAL Innovation Days 2019: How robotics and automation are changing aviation

“The smart integration of robotics and automation processes in manufacturing are among the central issues facing the aviation industry worldwide, and are also among the core topics of our research activities here in the ZAL. Therefore, we consciously chose this theme for the ZAL Innovation Days 2019 to discuss strategies and examples from different countries and sectors here in Hamburg,” says Roland Gerhards, Managing Director of ZAL.

See a film review of this high-profile event:

An interview on the subject of Germany as an aviation location and the “coexistence of robots and humans” with Mr. Gerhards can also be found in the whitepaper “Digitize Aviation” of the WingMag sponsor SFS. Cobots – collaborative robots – as well as exo-skeletons are addressed in this whitepaper: robots that can be “worn”, so to speak, in order to support workers in physically demanding work.

Robots from the Fraunhofer Institute IFAM based in Stade are achieving high levels of accuracy: standard industrial robots are being upgraded to mobile CNC milling robots. In aircraft construction, this system enables the precision-machining of large CFRP (carbon fibre reinforced plastic) structures. It certainly fulfils the accuracy requirements of component processing in aviation. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the solution won second place at the Robotics Awards at the Hannover Messe in 2018.

Also developed by the Fraunhofer Institute and in collaboration with Airbus, is an assistant robot that supports and relieves workers when installing sidewall panels. At Airbus in Hamburg, innovative riveting robots have also been used in the production of the A320 since 2018. These robots work on the front and rear hulls. But to what extent can roboticization in the aviation industry take away existing jobs altogether? Learn more about this in the second part of our article.

by Reiner Hertl

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