To assemble the fuselage of a large commercial airplane like the Boeing 777, you need to start by aligning your body plates, drilling a small hole, then riveting them together. That last step actually requires two people though, as one will need to be inside with the rivet gun while the other stands outside bracing a “bucking bar” against the back of the hole to help stop and lock the rivet. Once you have that, just do it 59,999 more times, and you’re done!
…or maybe invest in some robots?
There are many legitimate concerns with human labor being eclipsed by robots, but installing 60,000, bone-rattling rivets in airplane bodies is a time where the benefits are quite substantial. Riveting an airplane requires patience and precision, both of which are difficult to maintain in monotonous, physically demanding work. Boeing has also found that this process is the company’s primary source of repetitive arm, back and shoulder injuries, making it all the more ripe for mechanized automation.
Boeing’s solution has been the Fuselage Automated Upright Build (FAUB) system. Consisting primarily of two robotic arms, the FAUB system still needs human guidance, particularly with aligning the major pieces of fuselage, but once the riveting begins planes can be assembled faster and more safely. Beyond the riveting arms, Boeing also uses large, wheeled platforms that allow the factory to essentially have mobile workstations like you’d see in a car factory, but scaled up to handle a jet with a 200-foot wingspan.
More automation is on the way, particularly for jobs that may present health hazards. While not as jarring as riveting, other robotic arms are already taking over painting duties, letting humans be retrained to handle the robots rather than inhale paint fumes.
Source: Thank These Riveting Robots for Planes That Don’t Fall Apart by Alex Davies, Wired