Airbus is working with French and Japanese researchers to develop humanoid robots able to work alongside humans on its assembly lines and inside aircraft, in what would be a step change in the use of industrial robotics.
The European aircraft manufacturer, along with the Joint Robotics Laboratory based in Tokyo, is backing a four-year research project to develop human-like robotic technology capable of performing complex manufacturing tasks. It hopes that it will be able to put the robots in its factories in 10-15 years.
While carmakers were early adopters of robotics, the aircraft sector has struggled to make the economics work because it produces lower volumes and has longer production times.
The development of collaborative robots that can work alongside humans is changing the calculation. These new machines will be more flexible and lighter than existing models, able to crouch and bend more like people do. They will also be equipped with a host of sensors to ensure they stop if they touch or bump into a human.
The company insists, however, that such robots will not replace workers. “Introducing humanoid technology into aeronautical assembly lines is expected to support human operators in performing the most tedious and physically demanding parts of the manufacturing process, freeing up highly skilled workers to perform higher, value-added tasks,” the group said.
Sales of cobots are expected to rocket over the next four years from a relatively marginal $100m to close to $3bn, according to James Stettler, an analyst at Barclays research.
Cobots could eventually represent half the $32bn global market for robotics, according to Andreas Bauer, head of strategic marketing at robot maker Kuka and chairman of the suppliers’ committee at the International Federation of Robotics.
Few industrial companies have considered the prospect of humanoid robots for their factories. “We have two-armed systems . . . because [robots] are developed to do specific tasks, to support people,” said Mr Bauer. “To do this today we simply don’t need two legs.”
Airbus is hoping its work with the JRL will lead to robots capable of working in hard-to-access parts of the aircraft. The project will use real-life manufacturing experiences from different Airbus divisions to test the algorithms that will be needed to create a robot able to perform a variety of functions.
Both Airbus and its US rival Boeing are increasing the level of automation and robotics in their factories in an effort to drive efficiency to cope with a backlog of orders.
Airbus plans to launch new applications every year for the next five years. In late 2015, it began trials of a small robot on wheels able to move around inside the fuselage of an aircraft at the same time as human workers.
Boeing is using guided robots to build the fuselage of its 777 wide-body passenger jet. The robots are installed on platforms inside the aircraft, and are used to drill and fill the more than 60,000 fasteners that are traditionally done by human hands.