Planned to Perfection

It takes a high-tech facility to build a state-of-the-art G650
g650, technology, aviation
Written By Lesley Conn
Photography By Kathy Almand

Form follows function. Credit Louis Sullivan, a 19th century architectural icon, for the doctrine. His approach demanded that architects think first about a building’s intended use. The design, or form, then takes shape around that function.

Sullivan no doubt would be pleased with the Nicholas D. Chabraja Manufacturing Facility, home of the Gulfstream G650 in Savannah, Georgia.

From its inception, the 313,878-square-foot/95,670-square-meter building was designed around one objective: producing a next-generation aircraft through a leaner, more consistent manufacturing process that would help facilitate an even higher level of Gulfstream quality. Production of the G650 began in September 2008, but building design began four years earlier.

“When planning the aircraft, we were looking at a significant improvement in performance—the range, the speed, the functionality,” says Steve Ritchie, director of Operations Technology, Gulfstream. “From an operations perspective we also wanted to have a ‘step change’ in the way in which we built the aircraft. We focused on the product and the manufacturing process and objectives. The building design came a little later.”

Every facet of the building layout and the G650 assembly was modeled in 3-D software. The design team evaluated how the building would be laid out, where power and air lines would be placed, and even which tools would work best for each task. Program objectives called for reducing the number of parts by half and maximizing the use of standard parts, all with the goal of reducing manufacturing time by 20 percent.

Computerized machining techniques streamlined work. Most aircraft components for the G650 are produced with numerical control machines, which allow precise holes to be drilled into parts during manufacturing rather than on the assembly line. That means technicians no longer need to measure two parts, drill holes in each, and rivet the parts together on the floor.

“That method significantly reduces the amount of tooling you need to have,” explains L.D. Buerger, director of Initial Phase operations for the G650. “You’re able to put those holes in the exact same spot every time. It makes the build go together better, but the big thing from a facility standpoint is we have fewer fixtures and tools, which makes the process safer and more efficient.”

For production of the G650, Gulfstream uses state-of-the-art automatic riveting to assemble fuselage panels. Two Brötje-Automation Integrated Panel Assembly Cells (IPACs) complete about 75 percent of the riveting and drilling needed to assemble the fuselage.

A technician monitors the work by video and approves every step. The IPAC can drill, countersink, install sealant, place the fastener and squeeze the rivet closed in 5.5 seconds. A human averages 38 seconds for the same task.

“Initially we thought we would use the IPACs for 40,000 operations,” Buerger says. “Now we’re up to almost 60,000 on each aircraft. We also discovered that by pre-drilling precision holes using the machine, we needed fewer fixtures down the line to join the panels.”

Tooling engineers also studied the best way to move the oval sections of the fuselage, or barrels, from one work station to another. Moving each barrel typically required lifting each one by crane, placing it on the next work station and then measuring and readjusting, often more than once, until the barrel lined up exactly where it needed to be. Engineers developed precision-built carts that roll on rails. Each barrel is assembled on a cart, which rolls from station to station and is joined with other sections of barrel down the line.

Reducing the number of moves improved efficiency and eliminated much of the physical strain and risk of injury for technicians. The design required precise measurements, Ritchie explains, including making sure the concrete floor was absolutely level so that the carts could glide.

Perfect alignment also came together at work stations. Lines for electricity, hydraulic fluid, machining oil and air run under the floor, which reduces tripping hazards.

“At each work station, there’s a plate that opens up out of the floor and everything’s right there to connect to the source you need,” Buerger says.

Even blueprints got an upgrade. Technicians access drawings on computers, which reduces printing costs and allows engineers and technicians to communicate in real time, not through a draftsman’s rendering.

Engineers didn’t overlook the people who would be working and visiting the building. Translucent panels near the roof run the length and width of the production area, allowing sunlight to illuminate the bright white walls and bounce off the gray floors.

“We just felt daylight was an important morale booster for the people, and it was a better-quality light for working conditions,” Ritchie explains.

The combination also helps the aircraft take center stage when customers observe from second-floor viewing areas.

“We call it the ‘wow’ factor,” Buerger adds. “When people walk in, we want to wow them with the facility just as much as we do with the aircraft.”

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