Why is the manufacturing process mostly done by humans, and not by robots as in case of most other industries?Video
Although robots have taken over many jobs in the process of manufacturing things like cars, airliners are much larger and more complex. In some ways it has more in common with constructing a building than assembling a vehicle. There is a much larger variety of tasks to be performed over a much larger area.
That being said, many parts of the manufacturing process are completed by robots. For example, Gemcor makes machines that automatically drill aircraft wings and fasten them with rivets and bolts.
Robots are also used in manufacturing large composites. You'll notice how massive these machines are, and they are only completing one task on one component. They are very good at tasks that require one or more of force, repetition, and accuracy.
However, so much of the process is not economical to be done with robots. A robot specializes in one task or one type of task, while humans can do many different tasks. Many tasks involve working in tight spaces, which humans can do better than a large robot. Tasks like installing wires require dexterity as well, which humans are better at.
Economy of scale is a factor. Even the most produced airliners, the B737 and the A320, are delivered in a few hundred units every year. A robot is an investment - a big one, since robot costs are proportional to size, task, precision etc. Divide the investment cost over the production number, and when is the investment going to be recouped?
And the work that the robot must be programmed to do is highly skilled work, which for a large part takes place inside the aircraft: wiring through holes in the stiffeners, tubing for the air conditioning aystem etc. Highly complex work in constrained spaces divided by not many units makes poor economics for automation.
Here in Russia we have two main reasons:
- Conservatism in Aviation sphere.
All that is new is very difficult to promote in Russian aviation. And I'm talking not only about aircraft. The main reason for this is red tape. And "reliability"... It is assumed here that if something works well for many years, then it is better to leave it that way and do not change anything.
As was mentioned above: Economy of scale is a factor. It's really true!
With robotics, it's cost versus expected return.
The cost of the robot is directly related to the complexity of the task. For example, a simple screw driving robot can cost upwards of $100k, plus line testing and adjustments that add at least another 10k-20k - despite high tech, there is still a substantial element of trial and error to assembly line robotics.
The expected return is replacing a human - what is the cost of the human, how many times does the human make a mistake, and can the robot operate faster than the human? In the aforementioned screw driving robot, it replaces a human that costs the company $50k-60k per year (by the time one factors in benefits costs, etc...) and operates faster than the human which pushes up line throughput, so it pays for itself after about 1 year.
Robots can still make mistakes, as the components of the robot wear or fail.
Volume of production is also a major factor - a robot is cost efficient in high volume and simple tasks, as the benefit is directly tied to a per unit cost reduction. The fewer units, the less the benefit.
Humans can think during the process, can analyze, suggest improvements and spot potential problems. while the robot can only do what it is told to do. The more complex the task, the more this ability becomes important.
With aircraft assembly, you have relatively low volume and very high complexity. Building robots to take over the more complex assembly tasks would be extremely expensive, with not enough per unit cost reduction to justify the expense.