The world’s biggest LEGO set, the LEGO Art World Map, has 11,695 pieces. Take that figure, multiple by 513, and you have the 6 million plus parts typically making up a Boeing 747. Roughly 100,000 of these marvels can be found taking off, flying, and landing somewhere in the world every day.

How are such incredible vehicles made? What’s the secret? Today we dive deep into airplane construction, from the three main stages to the more detailed and highly complex stage of assembly, most of which is done by hand. 

What is Aircraft Construction? 

Interestingly enough, there are really only three main steps or stages to the manufacture of an airplane:

  • Design
  • Construction
  • Assembly

These are broad headings, of course. Each one breaks into numerous sub-steps and parts nearly as complex and intricate as the planes themselves. 

The Design Stage to Build an Airplane

The more formally known “design and planning process” is where the objectives and specifications are hammered out. Seven steps are found here. 

Step 1 – Problem Definition

Is there a new market for a new plane to fill? If so, what kind of aircraft? Is it feasible? And even if it is, is it profitable? These are some of the questions asked at this step.

Step 2 – Conceptual Design

This is where the plane designs begin to take shape. There will be a lot of back and forth discussions with the end user or purchaser during this step over the desired different possibilities/fit/form/functions of the aircraft.

Step 3 – Preliminary Design

Engineers join the designers at this step to create a basic proof of concept. Will the design actually fly? Can it be built? And, just as important, is the price point justified? Aerodynamics, flight mechanics, structure stresses, and stability are just some characteristics that have to be answered at this point in the design stage.  

Step 4 – Detail Design

This step is the most highly complex and the most critical stage. The main aircraft components shown below are designed and tested:

  • Control Surfaces design
  • Equipment/Subsystems
  • Evaluation and test review
  • Fuselage Design
  • Integration
  • Landing Gear
  • Performance and stability analysis
  • Propulsion System
  • Tail Design
  • Weight Distribution
  • Wind Tunnel Testing
  • Wing Design

Every single part has its own expert: air traffic control experts, seat experts, wing flap experts, wind tunnel experts, engine model experts, and carbon fiber recycling experts. Computer simulations, wind tunnel tests, and many more are performed on complete models, mock scaled down engines, as well as parts. During that time, how and where to get parts sourced and produced are also discussed and nailed down. 

Steps 1 through 4 can take up to four years.

Step 5 – Flight Testing

Once the new airplane plans have been detailed and tested, a prototype is built. It will be put through possibly years of rigorous test flights to ensure quality and safety of the new design. 

Step 6 – Certification

Certification is only performed once the manufacturer is satisfied with the flight test results, and the safe operation and functions of the new aircraft. Certificates to be obtained from governing bodies like the Federal Aviation Administration cover:

  • Aircraft Software
  • Engines, Propellers, Aux power units
  • Human safety factors
  • Technical Standard Orders
  • Parts Manufacturer Approval
  • Original Design Approval Process
  • National Automated Conformity Inspection Process

In total, it can easily take seven years and longer to complete all seven steps for a new plane to be approved to go into production. 

The Construction Stage in Building Planes 

The new plane has been designed, tested, and certified for construction. At the aptly named “construction stage”, all the parts have to be manufactured and assembled. This is no small feat: the European Airbus is made up of 2.5 million and more parts, while the American Boeing 747 has six million.

Many of these parts are handled by the aircraft manufacturer itself while others – like the engine – by outside companies. This includes everything from ground-up parts construction to putting together the tens of thousands of smaller parts like nuts, bolts, and rivets. Rugged mini PCs can run automation equipment like industrial robots to build the parts to specifications. Industrial tablets with built-in RFID readers and barcode sensors can help keep track of inventory as parts are stored in preparation for orders.     

The construction stage, on average, takes one to two years per new plane design to build out,  acquire, and coordinate all of the different parts that’ll be going into the final assembly stage. 

The Assembly Stage In Airplane Construction 

This is the stage where the parts are now ready to be joined together and form the aircraft.

The major parts, now finished and inspected, are flown to the plane company and its production line. There:

  • Parts like different seats for each airline customer are delivered through On Demand (Just In Time) manufacturing. They are stored on-site until ready to be part of the plane. Since there can be up to 40,000 deliveries per week, staff will be using industrial grade tablets to check each and log in each one. This way the company will know what’s on hand, any shortages, etc. 
  • Workers swarm over the body, or fuselage, of the plane. There they install components like wiring, installation, bathrooms, etc., at specific stations in the plant. Industrial tablets with assembling diagrams and instruction makes their tasks easier without sacrificing the quality necessary in aircraft construction. 

Much of this is done by hand. Coordination and scheduling, from who’s working on what, is vitally important. Priority is to avoid at all costs any stall of work at a station. At the same time, the process must meet the most strict and specific safety regulations and standards. This is especially true when two or more components need to be joined together by welding. An example of this is when the nose and mid-body section are merged together to form the “cigar”. Thousands of screws and rivets are involved, all of which are thoroughly checked to meet specifications. 

  • The wings are attached, followed by more installation in the interior.
  • The engines are installed at the very end. 
  • After the assembly, each new airplane is thoroughly inspected for any imperfections or defects. This is followed by inflight-testing to make sure systems are working as intended. The plane is pushed to its limits with special onboard sensors monitoring reactions to hot and cold weather, high altitude, water on the runway, tail scraping the ground, wings bending strength, etc. 
  • After testing and approval, the airplane is prepped for delivery to the customer.

So how fast does it take to assemble an airplane at this stage? Incredibly, not that long. Depending on the version, an Airbus can take roughly 10 days to roll out of the plant. Larger and/or more complex planes like a Boeing 777 can take a couple of months.  

Closing Comment 

Airplanes are incredibly complex machines with typical ones composed of millions of parts. This explains building a new airplane takes many years from design to assembly. 

Contact an expert at Cybernet if your company is in aircraft construction and is looking how industrial computers and tablets can benefit from tracking parts to displaying assembly diagrams.  

Join the conversation and connect with us on this and other relevant topics – Follow us Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin