Boeing starts building 737 wings with new automated system

Sat Mar 14, 2015 2:07am EDT
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By Alwyn Scott and Tim Hepher

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Boeing Co (BA.N: Quote) has started using a new automated system to build wing panels for 737 jetliners, an important step in preparing to hit record production speeds while introducing new models of the popular plane.

The robotic system, known as the Panel Assembly Line, or PAL, this week drilled holes and installed rivets for the wings of a production aircraft, the first such use of the system since installation began last summer, Boeing officials told Reuters during a visit to the Renton, Washington, plant.

PAL replaces older-generation machines that drilled the panels, but left workers the task of installing rivets, a laborious process that led to occasional injuries and defects.

PAL is designed to cut injuries in half, slash defects by 66 percent and reduce production "flow" time by 33 percent - all on half of the factory footprint.

Its start-up was widely awaited because the 737 factory accounts for two-thirds of the planes Boeing makes and PAL will help enable the company to boost production.

Inside the factory, a 60-ton, blue machine, looking something like a futuristic car wash, glides silently on hidden rails over a wing panel held in a jig.

With a quiet "hiss" the machine zips holes into the metal wing panel and installs rivets, connecting pieces known as stringers to what will become the bottom surface of a wing.

Five machines, made outside Seattle by Electroimpact Inc, have been erected in the plant. Boeing will install eight in total, with a ninth as a spare. They replace older machines made by Gemcor, based in West Seneca, New York.   Continued...

A blue, horseshoe-shaped wing assembly machine glides over a yellow wing panel, which will become part of a 737 jetliner, at the Boeing factory in Renton, Washington, in this picture taken March 12, 2015. REUTERS/Tim Hepher