* Boeing increased 737 production rates 60 percent
* Airbus has cut plane assembly time 30 percent
* GE testing 3-D printers to make better engine parts,
By Alwyn Scott
PARIS, June 18 As airplane makers gathered
outside Paris to show off their newest high-tech jetliners on
Monday, a less-heralded technology story was unfolding back home
on the factory floors of the world's leading aerospace firms.
The planned introduction of at least half a dozen new plane
designs that push the boundaries of flight performance has given
the industry its biggest opportunity in a decade or more to
automate factories, add new techniques and reduce costs.
In five years, airplanes entering service may have an engine
with parts delicately fabricated by an industrial 3-D printer, a
paint job applied by a robot and rivets installed by machines.
"The big next leaps will come on the production side - how
do we actually produce these airplanes faster, more efficiently,
with more automation?" Ray Conner, CEO of Boeing's
commercial airplane division, asked at the Paris Air Show on
Unlike the car industry, aerospace has been slow to
automate. Relatively low production - Boeing and Airbus
produce about 1,200 jets a year - often does not justify the big
investments required. Complexity and regulation also limit
change, meaning much of a jet is still handmade.
But now, flush with a record number of jet orders, the
industry is gearing its factories to produce at high volume and
low cost. More than 35,000 jets worth $4.8 trillion will be sold
in the next 20 years, according to Boeing's forecast.
Cutting costs is the only way to improve margins in a
business where steep price discounts can mean selling at slim
profit or a loss to win orders.
Since 60 percent to 70 percent of a plane's materials come
from suppliers, manufacturers also are pushing them to innovate,
and rewarding those that do by splitting the gains.
Military suppliers, under pressure from government spending
cuts, are streamlining their factories, too. Blackhawk
helicopter market Sikorsky, for example, hired German
automaker Porsche to advise it on production three years ago.
"It's going to really rip through the industry in the next
five to 15 years," as next-generation planes enter production,
said David Fitzpatrick, leader of the North American aerospace
and defense practice at AlixPartners, a consulting company.
In Cincinnati, GE Aviation is designing engines for
next-generation jets that will burn 15 percent to 20 percent
less fuel than existing models. Among the innovations to achieve
that savings, GE is testing 3-D printers that build up thin
layers of nickel-metal alloy into fully functioning parts.
GE aims to print an advanced fuel nozzle tip that can
withstand temperatures of 3,000 degrees inside the CFM
International LEAP engine by the time the engine enters service
in 2016 on the Airbus A320. It also will power Boeing's rival
737MAX. CFM, a joint venture of GE and Safran of France
, says this will be the first production use of
so-called additive manufacturing technology in commercial
With nearly 3,500 of the planes sold, CFM is committed to
producing about 1,700 engines a year by 2020. Pratt & Whitney
also is producing engines and is not using printing technology.
Printing would eliminate the need to mill the nozzle down
from a larger piece of metal, which often removes 90 percent of
the material, and to add 25 braise joints, dramatically reducing
cost and cutting manufacturing time from months or more to hours
or days, said Gareth Richards, LEAP program manager for CFM
More importantly, printing allowed GE engineers to design
the nozzle without the constraints milling and braising imposed,
allowing a better part that increased the fuel savings.
"This manufacturing technology that we're putting in place
is required because we couldn't create the designs without it,"
David Joyce, CEO of GE Aviation.
In a World War 2-era factory near Seattle where Boeing makes
its best-selling 737, the company has used Toyota lean
manufacturing principles and a moving assembly to nearly triple
production to 38 jets a month since 2000. Higher production
gives the plant more capacity using the same space and helps
lower the cost of each plane.
Another 10 percent improvement is due by mid-2014, as Boeing
ramps up to 42 737s per month, the equivalent of two every
working day. Boeing aims to do this while reconfiguring the
plant to build its next-generation 737MAX, which has 1,441
orders, after picking up 60 firm orders Monday.
"We're going to keep working with the supply chain to see if
we can go even faster," said Beverly Wyse, 737 program manager.
At its massive factory north of Seattle, Boeing adopted a
moving line for its 777 plane, boosting production nearly 19
percent since 2006, Boeing says.
Now it is using robotic arms to paint wings for its 777
minijumbo, adapting machines long used in the auto industry. The
switch from humans allows more consistent paint thickness and is
expected to result in significant savings, says Jason Clark,
manager of the 777 production line. Eventually the entire plane
could be painted robotically.
Airbus also still paints planes by hand.
Conner declined to say how much Boeing expects to save
through the measures, but acknowledged it has targets. He does
not want Wall Street to monitor them, he said.
Boeing's factory overhauls include even tiny parts. Plastic
zip-ties that hold bundles of wire together on the 737, for
example, were replaced with tape to eliminate chafing and speed
installation of the bundles, saving production time and the need
for costly repairs if the wire insulation is damaged.
Airbus has honed the processes in its assembly plant in
Toulouse, allowing it to clone the system at plants in Hamburg,
Germany, Teijin, China, and Mobile, Alabama, where it broke
ground for a $600 million plant in April.
Airbus uses stationary lines, with most jets assembled four
abreast in parallel bays, to avoid halting production if a
problem halts a line.
The company focuses on doing as many tasks as possible at
the same time, a strategy that has cut assembly time 30 percent.
Wings used to go on center fuselage sections first, for
example, then other fuselage sections were added, and finally
internal systems were turned on and tested. Airbus realized that
building the fuselage first allowed workers to power up the
internal systems while the wings were going on, so the work
could progress in parallel and cut time.
"We're always trying to find more ways of doing more things
in parallel, faster," said Alan Pardoe, head of marketing
communications at Airbus.
Canadian plane and train maker Bombardier is
due this month to make a first flight with its new CSeries
plane, the first all-new single-aisle jetliner made with
advanced materials. It says it is on track to get the jet into
service next year, as planned.
In planning the factory, it took advantage of automotive
technology, said Guy Hachey, COO of Bombardier's aerospace
division, who is a veteran of General Motors.
Once again, it planned for growth. It installed tooling to
build 120 planes a year but designed a factory to produce double
"We have the land, the plans and the scale of the program to
go twice that," Hachey said.