CASE STUDY: Boeing Australia – Where humans and automation work together

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Since the 2008 establishment of Boeing’s advanced research and development unit in Australia, Boeing researchers have pushed the limits of what collaborative robots (‘co‑bots’) might achieve in various facets of industry, including assembly, fabrication and repair.

New machines are targeted to work in areas that are repetitive and strenuous to team members. A recent example is the 737 component production system at Boeing’s facility in Fishermans Bend, Melbourne.

Many 737 components have hundreds of rivets that need machining to a nominal height upon installation. It is time-consuming work that could lead to repetitive strain on human operators. Additionally, there is the risk of damage to the components, as manually-operated shavers can slip, leading to costly rework.

Integrating new technology can be a challenge because factory layouts are already configured, operators are experienced and skilled in existing processes, and there is often limited capital available for system change. Implementing a new robot cell needs to be low cost, cause minimal disruption, and deliver rapid payback of value to an already streamlined production system.

The Boeing team spent considerable effort designing a system that is lightweight, unobtrusive and contains redundant safety measures, both with respect to the co-bot and the shaver tool it applies.

Since the introduction of the low-cost, low-disturbance system in 2017, the co-bot has saved hundreds of hours of ergonomically-difficult human labour. This demonstrates that robots can be a mechanism to reduce human risk even as they work side-by-side with people. As an unanticipated tangible benefit, machining cutter consumption also decreased through efficient manipulation only possible by an automated solution.

This implementation by Boeing in Melbourne represents human-robot collaboration and a vision of the future for factories.

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