FEATURE-Flush with orders, aerospace industry retools for future

Mon Jun 17, 2013 8:55pm EDT
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* 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, faster

By Alwyn Scott

PARIS, June 18 (Reuters) - 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 Monday.

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.   Continued...