Robots are helping a European airplane manufacturer cut into an eight-year backlog of orders for one of its most popular aircraft.

Cables and energy chains manufactured by igus are included on robots designed by Loxin that assist in building aircraft fuselages. (Photo by igus)

Airbus (Toulouse, France) is using automated units developed by Loxin (Pamplona, Spain) to assist in the manufacture of fuselages for its best-selling A320 aircraft. The robots — which have been named Luise and Renate by Airbus workers — perform the drilling and riveting of the aircraft fuselages before final assembly. The robots provide faster and more efficient production for Airbus, which is seeking to increase production from 50 planes per month to 60. Airbus has sold 6,000 jets, with another 8,000 on order.

Keeping Robots in Control

The robots are designed with e-chains® and Chainflex® cables from igus, a Germany-based manufacturer of motion plastics (the company runs its North American operations out of Providence, RI). The robots include 11 e-chains and 19 cables. The long-lasting components are maintenance- and lubrication-free, reduce downtime, and offer increased service life.

The robots help drill more than 2,800 holes to join the two halves of the fuselage. In the past, the work had been done by humans. The robots are more efficient than humans but are also more precise in drilling the holes. “These robots are able to drill almost 80 percent of holes on the upper side of the sections, which improves the ergonomic working environment,” according to Airbus.

The robots include 11 e-chains and 19 cables from igus, and are maintenance- and lubrication-free. (Photo by igus)

The robots manufactured by Loxin are seven-axis units and are part of a new final assembly line where the fuselage and wings are transported by automated moving tool platforms, rather than lowered by cranes onto fixed jigs, and where dynamic laser tracking is used to perfectly align aircraft parts. The robots are used for drilling and counter-sinking, inserting fasteners, and applying sealants in the shaft.

In the system, two e-chains move three-dimensionally, so that the robots do not collide with the fuselage and cause damage to the aircraft. The e-chains are attached parallel to each side of the robot arms, facilitating movement of the arms and making the fuselages more accessible despite the difficult geometries involved.

Component Benefits

The igus components offered several advantages, according to Francisco Javier Martinez Lopez, igus’ energy chain systems sales manager. They include:

  • A snap-lock mechanism for fast opening to insert and easily replace the large quantity of cables and hoses for automatic drilling heads installed on the sixth axis.

  • Defined minimum bend radius and torsion-stop for optimum cable protection, allowing Loxin to constantly change the robot program to work on many different pieces of the aircraft.

  • A ball-and-socket design that allows for the absorption of high tensile strength generated during the robot trajectories and the high additional load inside the chain.

  • Compact design of the linear retraction systems on both sides of the robot arm.

Thanks to igus’ Twisterchain, cables are correctly distributed around the first axis, instead of all together inside one corrugated tube being compressed and twisted without a defined bend radius. “One RSE linear retraction system is attached on each side of the robot arm,” Martinez Lopez explained. “This results in improved accessibility despite the complex geometries and the large number of guided cables and hoses. The cables and hoses bring into the application the connecting elements on one hand, and on the other, provide for the extraction of emerging dust. This allows for a larger working space, and collisions are neutralized between the fuselage and the robot end effector.”

The robots drill more than 2,800 holes to join the two halves of the fuselage. The work had previously been done by humans. (Photo by igus)
The robots increase efficiency by drilling and riveting aircraft fuselages before final assembly. (Photo by igus)

The Airbus A320 is a wide, single-aisle cabin that usually seats 150 passengers, with a maximum capacity of 180 travelers. The aircraft has an overall length of 37.57 meters and a fuselage width of 3.95 meters. The first member of the A320 family launched in 1984 and first flew in 1987. There are now more than 7,700 Airbus A320 planes in use, and it ranked as the world's fastest-selling jet airliner from 2005 to 2007.

This article was written by Thomas Renner for igus. For more information, click here.