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I have been watching some episodes of the documentaries made by National Geographic lately and I have noticed something that I can't find an explanation for.

In this episode of Megafactories - Eurofighter Typhoon, starting at 17:21, the amount of automation in the factory is apparently very low and the workers seem to be doing everything with their hands.

On the contrary, in this episode about the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, starting at 24:05, the process is much much more automated and there is almost no one around doing anything by hand.

I have always thought that the aerospace industry is one of the most sensitive industries and the highest levels of accuracy, precision and consistency are required. But those documentaries show the opposite to this.

So is there a reason as to why this Eurofighter Typhoon factory is so much less automated than this Volkswagen one? Is there something I might be missing that would make a less automated factory a better choice for the aerospace industry?

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    $\begingroup$ Automation doesn't imply accuracy or consistency. For accuracy and consistency you need quality control. But automation does requirement huge upfront investment which can only be recovered by a large throughput, which Typhoon, with a grand total of 565 units built, obviously doesn't have. $\endgroup$ – user3528438 Nov 1 '19 at 15:15
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    $\begingroup$ A Rolls-Royce is typically mostly hand-built. Would you consider that lower quality compared to a VW? I bet the Rolls-Royce has higher "levels of accuracy, precision and consistency" in their products, but automation just isn't worth it with so few being produced. $\endgroup$ – Bianfable Nov 1 '19 at 15:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Bianfable, a comparison of Rolls-Royce and VW is a bit confusing for a couple of reasons. See, Rolls-Royce, in context of this site, usually means the direct descendant of the original company that now makes exclusively turbine engines (including third of those that go in Typhoons). The car division got split out a long ago, and was bought by none else than VW. It only makes cars under the brand Bentley though, because the trademark for cars was bought by BMW, which now has a new subsidiary that also has Rolls-Royce in its name, but no relation to the original comany. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Nov 4 '19 at 21:52
  • $\begingroup$ @JanHudec I am fully aware of that, but I don't think anyone would confuse what I meant. Comparing a Rolls-Royce with a VW is clearly about cars, not engines. $\endgroup$ – Bianfable Nov 4 '19 at 21:56
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There are two big factors at play here: scale and throughput.

First, automation is very good at repetitive tasks. The Wolfsburg plant produces over 800,000 cars per year. It's taken 25 years to make almost 600 Typhoons. That means yearly production is different by four orders of magnitude. It's a lot easier to justify the cost of buying, installing, and programming a robot to save a human from doing the task 800,000 times in a year than just 25 times. This also means that a robot can completely replace a person with a job at one place on the assembly line doing only a few tasks over and over. On the Typhoon line, even if a person only works one line position, they may have many more tasks all over the airplane.

The scale of the Typhoon is also different. It's easy for a few standard industrial robots to access an entire car chassis. It's much harder to access everything on a fighter jet. Larger robots will be even more expensive. Mobile robots are much harder to use with high accuracy. And where you might be able to have multiple humans doing various tasks in the same area, the whole area would have to be blocked off for safety to allow maybe a couple robots to work there.

There is also the factor of processes. A lot of the assembly work on cars is done with welding, which is fairly simple for a robot to do. The Typhoon is mostly assembled with nuts and bolts, which is a much more complex process for a robot to accomplish.

If you break things down to the component level, the balance changes. Drilling thousands of holes in the various components is often done with robotics and some smaller assembly work can be done as well. It's where all of that is assembled into a large structure that humans become the cheaper option.

This also feeds back into the design process. Cars are designed from the start to be easily assembled robotically, because it's much cheaper that way. Not having to design all assembly processes around robot access allows aircraft designers to make things smaller and lighter, a much larger factor for airplanes than cars.

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The difference is that airplane construction is a bit closer to house construction x100 than making cars.

Cars: Small objects made of a relatively small number of largely preformed parts bolted together. Many operations can be performed by a stationary robot doing the same repetitive things that an assembly line worker did. Easy and cheap to automate as industrial robots were developed.

Airplanes: Large objects made from vast numbers of pieces, with even vaster number of fasteners and components. The people doing the assembly have to be very mobile and flexible in their activities. This is very hard to automate compared to creating a machine that can sit in one spot and perform a job previously doable by a low IQ human. Just the riveting process requires 2 people to perform (except for small assemblies where a worker can reach both sides), requiring a certain amount of skill and abstract thinking and judgement, and who need to have a fair amount of freedom of action. Requires a far higher level of robotic sophistication compared to cars.

That being said, the latest aircraft production lines are become a lot more automated, relatively speaking, with things like integrated whole-fuselage robotic riveting machines, sub-assembly riveting robots, automated component movers. The production line for the A-220/C-Series has quite a bit fewer people around it than the traditional one, although it's still an ant farm compared to an automotive line.

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