Cobot-based aircraft manufacturing for the ‘factory of the future’

04 July 2018

Credit: BAE Systems

BAE Systems engineers will soon benefit from collaborative robots – or ‘cobots’ – designed to support people who handle the complex manufacturing of combat aircraft by the end of this year.

The cobotic workstation, a key feature of the factory of the future, is fitted with a range of digital technology and will be piloted at the company’s Warton, Lancashire site to work safely and seamlessly alongside manufacturers who are building high-tech systems for cutting-edge combat aircraft.

The technologies that have been developed – including operator recognition and a sensor-enabled cobotic arm – will be tested on the Typhoon production line by the end of this year, marking the latest step in BAE Systems’ strategy to continually invest in, and enhance, its manufacturing capabilities to deliver the aircraft of the future.

The introduction of new digitally-integrated advanced manufacturing technologies builds on existing investments in robotics and aims to drive further productivity, quality and safety improvements into future combat aircraft programmes, helping to increase the company’s competitiveness and manufacturing agility.

Robotics is already an integral part of BAE Systems’ combat aircraft production line, which includes a high level of automation, but the integrated sensors that feature in the workstation make this the next step in people safely working directly with robots.

The technology will allow the worker to make strategic decisions while delegating to the cobotic arm repetitive, machine-driven tasks which require consistency. This will enable engineers to focus on highly-skilled tasks, adding greater value to the manufacturing process.

Moreover, the technology will recognise operators and automatically load optimised individual profiles that use wireless technology. It will also automatically deliver tailored cues and instructions, suitable for their level of expertise, to guide them through practical tasks. This will allow employees to work at a greater pace, with increased accuracy. 

Key features

Operator recognition – the high tech workstation will use wireless sensors to identify each worker and tailor the working experience accordingly

Credit: BAE Systems

Digital training passport – it will remember each worker’s level of expertise, training history and user permissions

Cobotic arm – it will be fitted with sensors to enable it to safely interact with employees during complex assembly tasks

Light-assisted assembly – it will prompt the user towards the correct components or consumables during the manufacturing process, with light-assisted or pick-by-light technology

Dave Holmes, manufacturing director at BAE Systems’ Air business, said: “We’ve only really started to scratch the surface of what automation can do in industry, and some really exciting possibilities are emerging as we enter the fourth industrial revolution.

“Cobotics is the next, natural step in developing manufacturing technology that will allow for a blending of skilled roles. We envisage that people will make larger, more strategic decisions while delegating the repetitive and intricate aspects of production to a robot.

“Through the factory of the future technology, automation will empower employees to work safely at greater speed and with maintained accuracy, leading to increased productivity and quality.”

BAE Systems has collaborated with a number of partners, including the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, and Siemens who will provide MindSphere software. This software will connect technologies through the workstation and output manufacturing data, which will help engineers to analyse and improve the advanced manufacturing processes.

The cobotic workstation is part of BAE Systems’ plans to further incorporate and integrate manufacturing technologies into the workplace – such as reconfigurable, multifunction technology, 3D printing, augmented reality and manufacturing autonomy.

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