Inside Machines: Upgrading Boeing 777 Wing Fastening Machine

Wing fastening machine upgrade lifts productivity for Boeing 777 factory.


Rosie the Riveter of WWII fame has long-since been replaced by automated descendents. Boeing Company has been doing automated assembly of aircraft components for decades. In fact, earlier generations of wing fastening machines are ready for rejuvenation using newer technology controller systems and touchscreen human machine interfaces (HMIs). To assist with the upgrades, Boeing engaged Concept Systems Inc., a system integrator with experience in the latest automation and machine vision technologies.

A Boeing 777 wing being fastened together in a Gemcor machine. Courtesy: Concept Systems

A recent project involved retrofitting the wing fastening machines that Boeing uses to make wings for the 777 commercial aircraft. These machines, originally manufactured by Gemcor of West Seneca, N.Y., were installed at Boeing’s Everett, Wash., plant. Nine of these machines are in use on the 777 line. At any given time, there are four wing panels being assembled, with two Gemcor machines working on each panel section, installing over 70,000 fasteners per wing set, one at a time.

Gemcor machines use fasteners to attach the wing skin panels to the underlying wing stringers in a four-step cycle. The machine drills and countersinks the holes, places each fastener in its hole, installs the fasteners with a specified force, and then shaves the top of the fastener flush with the wing panel. The machine is also capable of inserting bolts with a similar operation, first drilling and countersinking the holes, applying sealant, and then inserting bolts in the holes.

Another view of the Gemcor machine showing the elevated operator station Courtesy: Concept Systems

The control system upgrade project began in 2005 when Boeing’s 777 Production and Equipment Services Gemcor Team, as part of the company’s commitment to continuous improvement of manufacturing operations, decided to upgrade the machine’s electrical systems and controllers. The machines on the 777 line were originally installed in 1992 and had been added to and modified several times since then. With each modification, new wiring was laid on top of old wiring, and the machines were starting to exhibit downtime due to problems with the wiring network that had become difficult to troubleshoot. The original controllers and drives had also become obsolete, and the Boeing Gemcor Team could see opportunities to improve productivity if the machine’s old vision system were replaced with the newest technology, and the operator interfaces were replaced with more user-friendly systems. There were also opportunities to add new automated functions to the machines to minimize operator interface.

To implement all of the machine upgrades, engineers from Concept Systems, an Albany Ore.-based systems integrator with a regional office in Seattle, Wash., worked very closely with the Boeing Gemcor Team. One of the first steps was the review of available documentation for the machines, which consisted of one set of drawings per machine. As the machine controller upgrade brought commonality to all machines, the Concept Systems engineers consolidated the drawings to one set.

The upgrade plans called for removing all of the old wiring and replacing the CNC controller, PLC, motor drives, and motion controller on each Gemcor machine and adding new touchscreen HMIs. In the process, Concept Systems improved the HMIs to standardize the operator interfaces with other wing manufacturing systems in the plant.

Close-up of the operator station showing new controls implemented by Concept Systems. Courtesy: Concept Systems

One new function that Concept Systems supported was addition of the tack re-sync camera and monitor (tack re-synch refers to the operation of removing a tack fastener and replacing it with an actual fastener). In addition to the main operator consoles that are used to run the machine, Concept Systems added a maintenance console connected to a PC that is used for maintenance programming. The lower operator console consists of a main PanelView operator screen and monitors for the tack re-sync operation, the CNC, and an injector camera that shows the fasteners as they’re inserted.

The 777 machine retrofits have significantly reduced maintenance requirements for Boeing.

“When wiring problems would occur with a machine before the upgrade, sometimes the machine would be down for a day or two,” said Fred Rassoulian, Boeing’s Wing Fastening Systems lead engineer. “Now the downtime is minimal. A guess would say that we saved at least a couple of days per month of machine downtime. And with the new HMIs and online maintenance procedures, keeping the machines running and troubleshooting what problems do occur is now a lot easier.”

The quicker fastener placement has also improved the speed of the machine, increasing its capacity. And as part of the upgrade, the machines were made more energy efficient by replacing the air compressor and pneumatic air dryer with more efficient units, helping Boeing win energy credits from the local public utility district (PUD).

“Concept Systems understood Boeing’s requirement for absolute precision and exacting tolerances,” said Rassoulian. “Concept Systems’ engineer Mike Dodds went over every step in the test and acceptance process in detail and made sure that the new system functioned successfully to meet Boeing standards.”

- Michael Gurney is co-CEO and vice president of sales and marketing, Concept Systems Inc. Snohomish County Public Utility District

No comments
The Top Plant program honors outstanding manufacturing facilities in North America. View the 2013 Top Plant.
The Product of the Year program recognizes products newly released in the manufacturing industries.
The Engineering Leaders Under 40 program identifies and gives recognition to young engineers who...
A cool solution: Collaboration, chemistry leads to foundry coat product development; See the 2015 Product of the Year Finalists
Raising the standard: What's new with NFPA 70E; A global view of manufacturing; Maintenance data; Fit bearings properly
Sister act: Building on their father's legacy, a new generation moves Bales Metal Surface Solutions forward; Meet the 2015 Engineering Leaders Under 40
Cyber security cost-efficient for industrial control systems; Extracting full value from operational data; Managing cyber security risks
Drilling for Big Data: Managing the flow of information; Big data drilldown series: Challenge and opportunity; OT to IT: Creating a circle of improvement; Industry loses best workers, again
Pipeline vulnerabilities? Securing hydrocarbon transit; Predictive analytics hit the mainstream; Dirty pipelines decrease flow, production—pig your line; Ensuring pipeline physical and cyber security
Upgrading secondary control systems; Keeping enclosures conditioned; Diagnostics increase equipment uptime; Mechatronics simplifies machine design
Designing positive-energy buildings; Ensuring power quality; Complying with NFPA 110; Minimizing arc flash hazards
Building high availability into industrial computers; Of key metrics and myth busting; The truth about five common VFD myths

Annual Salary Survey

After almost a decade of uncertainty, the confidence of plant floor managers is soaring. Even with a number of challenges and while implementing new technologies, there is a renewed sense of optimism among plant managers about their business and their future.

The respondents to the 2014 Plant Engineering Salary Survey come from throughout the U.S. and serve a variety of industries, but they are uniform in their optimism about manufacturing. This year’s survey found 79% consider manufacturing a secure career. That’s up from 75% in 2013 and significantly higher than the 63% figure when Plant Engineering first started asking that question a decade ago.

Read more: 2014 Salary Survey: Confidence rises amid the challenges

Maintenance and reliability tips and best practices from the maintenance and reliability coaches at Allied Reliability Group.
The One Voice for Manufacturing blog reports on federal public policy issues impacting the manufacturing sector. One Voice is a joint effort by the National Tooling and Machining...
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals an organization devoted...
Join this ongoing discussion of machine guarding topics, including solutions assessments, regulatory compliance, gap analysis...
IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is a leading independent supplier of market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry.
Maintenance is not optional in manufacturing. It’s a profit center, driving productivity and uptime while reducing overall repair costs.
The Lachance on CMMS blog is about current maintenance topics. Blogger Paul Lachance is president and chief technology officer for Smartware Group.