Build it and they will fly!

Build it and they will fly!
Build it and they will fly!

Prodtex, part of the EU's LOCOMACHS project looks at how the wing factory of the future is being developed, and particularly the design and build of the fixture for the Lean Assembly Wing Box demonstrator.

Prodtex, part of the EU’s LOCOMACHS project looks at how the wing factory of the future is being developed, and particularly the design and build of the fixture for the Lean Assembly Wing Box demonstrator.

What will aircraft production lines look like in the future? How will today’s manufacturing processes and systems evolve to increase production rates and meet the demands of increasing air travel?

Some commentators estimate that production will need to double over the next 15 years. In order to achieve this production rate, traditional manufacturing assembly techniques and processes need to evolve.

An EU Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) project, LOCOMACHS, is considering these issues and Bristol-based Prodtex, a part-owned subsidiary of Prodtex in Sweden, is one of the key collaborators within the project, developing the next generation of wing production lines.

Prodtex is part of two of the work packages in this project. The first is to help with the design and build of the fixture for the Lean Assembly Wing Box demonstrator (so called LAWiB) and the second utilises Prodtex’s 3D modelling and assembly line expertise to create a virtual full scale assembly line to build wings in a leaner, quicker and more cost effective manner.

LAWiB, one of two physical demonstrators, consists of a section of a wing with a front and a rear spar, four ribs, upper and lower covers and connecting components to assemble all parts together. The components are a mix of metal and composite parts. LAWiB has enabled testing of new design technology and new assembly processes. The picture below identifies the section of the wing that is assembled within the LAWiB fixture.

Boxing clever


The demo fixture has benefited from Prodtex’s reconfigurable tooling expertise and technology. The main fixture was built using the company’s patented BoxJoint modular fixture system. It is designed for flexibility and robustness, enabling construction of structure without the need for welding. The steel based technology is suitable for assembly, machining or other frame structure applications.

Peter Helgosson, director of Prodtex, explains: “Reconfigurable tooling removes the limitations of traditional fixture design which requires component geometry and datums to be locked months in advance of manufacture which enhances concurrent engineering. Our Boxjoint system uses standard plates, bolts and nuts to create joints. The bolts are installed with high torque values to provide a rigid friction joint, which is equal in stiffness to a welded joint.”

The UK’s Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) is acting as the final integrator of the LAWiB demonstrator and has worked with Prodtex on numerous projects.

Andy Silcox, the MTC’s technical specialist (assembly systems) says: “The Prodtex range of innovative tooling solutions delivers the ability to rapidly re-configure tools and fixtures to adapt to multiple products, fluctuating build rates and variability in the condition of supply of sub component parts. This offers huge potential to increase the efficiency of assembly operations.”

The demo fixture also requires automated technology to enable components to be manoeuvred, allowing access for component installation as well as repositioning of parts to compensate for tolerance deviations. To meet this requirement three hexapods have been developed. A hexapod is a spatial motion robot with six driving elements. The robot consists of six legs that can be rotated and whose length can be changed to allow the platform to move in all six degrees of freedom (6DoF).


“We have designed our hexapods to suit the assembly processes. Firstly, they are able to manoeuvre the leading edge using two synchronised hexapods. Secondly we use a 6DoF force feedback sensor in conjunction with the hexapod robot to manage the location of the ribs as they are automatically positioned to a best fit location within the wingbox,” adds Helgosson.

The hexapods can carry flags and pickups which allow the fixture to be quickly reconfigured. This could also enable the production of different aircraft variants in one assembly line and allows rapid recertification and recalibration, say with a laser tracker, which provides feedback into the control and movement of hexapods, and they will relocate automatically where required.

Automating the installation of the spar and ribs was the ideal method to implement this new build philosophy process and the combination of boxjoint technology and hexapod robots provide an elegant solution.

Reconfigurable technology and automation form the basis of this assembly process and the benefits that lead to their selection on this project as opposed to traditional assembly processes include:

• Short lead-time on fixture design due to use of dedicated design apps

• Flexibility to cope with late design changes

• Short lead-times due to the use of off the shelf modular components

• Cost efficiency due to modular configuration and re-use of fixture components

Implementing new, more complex and automated wing build processes present many challenges. To validate these new developed technologies for a wing manufacturing line, a virtual 3D factory has been created.

This allows Prodtex to simulate the robot operations and ensure they can complete their tasks, demonstrate the achievable build rate, visualise the resource requirements and ensure the human/robot interaction is safely managed. This simulation is used alongside the LAWiB demonstrator to prove the technology works in a full-scale wing build.

Factory virtuality


Magnus Engström, technical director of LOCOMACHS and project leader at Saab Aeronautics, explains the significance of this: “There are several benefits of designing a virtual factory. Visibility of physical flow and work environment for operators highlight details which are easy to miss in a static 2D drawing; for example, physical accessibility, working postures and material handling.”

Prodtex introduced 3D Experience, the new Dassault system platform. Being a very modern simulation environment it gives all the functionality that is needed for the work and is necessary to fulfil the requirements of more complex automated factories and increased production rates as demonstrated in the LOCOMACHS project.

Due to the aerospace industry’s requirements for complex operations, whilst working to a low build rate in comparison to the automotive industry, operators and robots are more likely to have to work alongside each other (see picture below of human and robot calibration). Prodtex are at the final stage of simulating the future wing factory.

So, what will the aircraft production line of the future look like? No-one knows for sure, but Prodtex, Saab, the MTC and the other LOCOMACHS partners are making huge strides in assembly technology and new manufacturing processes, to enable the production lines of the future to meet the huge demands it will face.

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