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Given that aircraft production rates have doubled over the past ten years, the aerospace industry is looking for ways to support higher volumes while reducing cost and improving quality. However, with relatively low production volumes and large product variability as compared to the automotive industry, it has been challenging for many aerospace companies to create a viable business case for automation.

The large OEMs and airframe manufacturers have been using automated fastening, sealing, material handling, and carbon fiber layout machinery for at least ten years. During the same period, turbine engine manufacturers have been using robotic deburring, material handling, and vision inspection to manufacture core engine components like turbine blades. There is no question that most of the money spent on automation in the aerospace industry today is with “drilling and filling.” According to aerospace consultant, Nick Bullen, “Mechanical fasteners account for 60 percent of the cost of airframe assembly, 80 percent of lost-time injuries, and 80 percent of defects.” Obtaining a return on investment when there are thousands of rivets on a wing might seem obvious. However, it is the increased quality and reduced injury that make the real difference for the business case. 

For example, Boeing Co. installed a panel assembly line to drill holes and install rivets into wings that reduced scrap by 66% and cut the number of injuries in half. This automatically improves OEE, which increases throughput to support the growing demand in aircraft. 

Meanwhile, Identifying other opportunities where automation makes good business sense is often very challenging. Neil Willetts, former COO of Comau Aerospace, a company that plays in the automated “drill and fill” field, said, “Unlike automotive, where the manufacturing processes are very well defined and similar at each company, aerospace manufacturing process are often very unique.” 

Due to the large part variation, the aerospace industry is challenged with tooling up to support automation. “Traditionally, automation in aerospace manufacturing has consisted of large monument machines that are fed from manual processes,” says Austin Weber from Assembly Magazine. 

However, the flexibility of robotics and machine vision has helped to close the gap. Robots with integrated vision systems can easily respond to several part variants, depending on programming. “By using robots, there is no need to design a specific jig—the robot uses a vision system to drill the hole(s) at the desired spot(s).” says Mathieu Bélanger-Barrette from Robotiq, a manufacturer of universal robot grippers. In fact, the use of Collaborative robots, which can work alongside humans, has become more attractive to aerospace companies where some processes may require frequent human intervention. Cobots open up new opportunities to identify applications to get automation into an aerospace facility without the same safety and programming challenges with traditional 6-axis robots. 

Once the automated manufacturing application has been identified, the business case has to be developed. Unlike automotive, where the product life cycle can be as low as four years, aerospace programs typically take a decade to develop and last 20 to 30 years. One would think then that an ROI of five years would be great. However, with many companies with quarterly financial performance requirements in place, a five-year investment would make the books for the current FY look very poor. 

Instead, companies could look at the total cost of ownership over the duration of the program. This savings would then help to calculate a true cost per part savings. The cost per part is calculated based on the total volume requirements for the entire program and not just the volume for the first few years, which is usually very low. 

Therefore, there may be negative cash flow in the first year with the capital investment, but with a reduction in labor, scrap and higher throughput through the years, cash flow will increase overtime. 

When calculating return on investment for a particular manufacturing process, aerospace companies look at the following factors to build a business case. Many of these factors are qualitative and therefore difficult to put a cost to.

Examples of factors used to calculate ROI include: 


  1. General reduction in labor using automation.
  2. Cost difference between skilled labor and non-skilled using automated equipment.
  3. Cost of skilled labor shortage. There is a cost to not being able to find the skilled labor necessary to support increased production.

Health and Safety: 

  1. Hours of production lost due to injury. 
  2. Wages paid to employees on sick leave due to injury. 


  1. The savings of lower scrap rate due to increased quality. 
  2. The cost of a lengthy manufacturing process due to human error or variability. 
  3. Cost per part reduction due to lower cost of rework 


  1. Higher throughput using new automated equipment 
  2. Increased utilization of existing capital equipment 
  3. Reduced machine downtime due to tool changes 
  4. Increased production efficiency using automated SCADA control systems

The result to the end customer is a lower cost-per-part and a better lead time.

According to Neil Willetts, there are other factors that aerospace decision makers often take into consideration that are very difficult to quantify:
  • The cost of risk. Whether it be the risk of stopping the company’s production line or causing a catastrophic failure on an aircraft.
  • The cost of time. It can often take weeks to manufacture an aerospace component from the material sourcing to the manufacturing processes. If the final step in the manufacturing process results in scrap, then all that time is wasted and the company must wait those several weeks all over again.

At the end of the day, there are many compelling reasons to automate processes within the aerospace industry. The challenge is identifying which of these processes will demonstrate long-term positive cash flow. 

The fact remains, that automation has proven itself as a way for companies to improve quality and reduce cost and injury. As the industry continues to grow, and advances in automation technology are made, more opportunities for automation that provide a solid ROI will present themselves and we will begin to see more and more factory automation in aerospace manufacturing companies across the globe. 

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