Alenia’s Robots

They’re not as wise as R2D2, but robots are essential in building aircraft like the Airbus A380.

Alenia's robots are major players in building the giant Airbus A380 passenger liner. Airbus

Nola, Italy—Modern airplane manufacturing plants are more like cities than factories.

A typical plant operated by Italy’s Alenia Aeronuatica features medical facilities, transportation systems, chemical laboratories, quality testing torture rooms, dining facilities, and police. Riccardo Busca, the operations head of the Alenia plant in Nola, Italy, outside of Naples, says his “mayoralty” oversees two cities: one dedicated to making airplane panels and sheet metal and, in a separate building on the premises, a shop that machines tools and parts for all Alenia projects. All told, he oversees 133,000 square feet of covered space.

His citizenry includes more than 500 workers, but there are a host of other residents who are critical to the plant’s operation: the robots. And the robots at Nola have personalities. Some are intimidating, some are fussy, others, endearing. The automation is pervasive, from start to finish. As raw materials come in to the plant, for example, an automated crane system plucks parts and ferries them to workstations. The cranes work the nightshift so that the workers have just what they need the next day. The automated loaders have brains: A wider logistics system tracks and orders items along the supply chain.

Massive yellow cranes roll across the ceiling, capable of hefting as much as 18 metric tons of aluminum or titanium at a time and bringing it to any workstation in the building. An enormous jig moves two 25-foot fuselage sections from machine station to station, where the sections are drilled, carved, painted, and non-invasely tested. The practice at the factory is to move large sections of airplanes rather than working on smaller parts and assembling those at the end of the process.

For some projects, such as the construction of structural wing components for the Eurofighter, parts are made at the Nola factory and shipped to a plant near Turin for assembly. For the Airbus A380, Alenia assembles the fuselage panels and other structures at Nola. The Italian company also makes structural parts for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner (“Alenia’s Gamble,” July 2007.)

To make ready-to-install airplane parts, the Nola plant is equipped with an array of automated grippers, aimers, drillers, and loaders. With a few keystrokes, most machines can immediately switch to another project’s specifications.

Robots are rarely left without human supervision. In most cases, the robots and humans work in tandem. For instance, at the console of a riveting machine, operator Ferdinand Corbelli from Pompeii monitors six video screens, each with an image of a stage of the process. From his seat he can watch as the machine drills holes, places rivets, and injects sealant, all in a span of seven seconds.

Most of Corbelli’s time is spent supervising the aiming of the drill head: His console displays proper aim by showing a green circle, like a fighter pilot sees on his head-up display when a missile locks onto a target. If the robotic brain can’t aim correctly, Corbelli can step in and guide the drill manually or, in the case of continual misaims, recalibrate the machine.

Robots also are ubiquitous in the machine shop. They are used to make intricate airplane parts, such as frames, ribs, and parts of the landing gear. Here, Alenia Aeronautica makes parts for both Boeing and Airbus projects.

Each manufactured part in the machining area is scrutinized by a pencil-eraser-size probe at the end a crooked robotic arm. The arm descends and gently touches the ball probe to the part’s surface; at each touch, the probe registers a quiet beep. After 300 to 400 beeps, the part’s shape has been traced and compared against the specifications to ensure quality.

Other machines are dedicated to making small parts or tools. Some of the most endearing robots at Nola are the waist-high, wheeled vehicles that bring raw, uncut metals to machines and retrieve finished tools. Guided by tracks beneath the concrete (with yellow painted lines warning biped human co-workers away), these carriers work a pre-programmed shift.

Like the sheet metal plant, the tools-and-parts building always has a human being to check the quality of the work, trouble-shoot errors, or take over when the machines fail. Last fall a trio of workers was using hand drills to affix rivets to a section of an A380 fuselage section because the machine that ordinarily did the work had shut down. Deburring parts—essentially shaving the edges smooth—is always a human job.

The employees in the Nola plant are among the highest skilled, according to Italian union ratings, some having decades of experience in airplane manufacture. “There is a high level of investment in automation,” Busca says. “But the final touch of quality…can only made by professionals by working by hand.”

Alenia's robots are major players in building the giant Airbus A380 passenger liner. Airbus

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