The Airbus Shopfloor Challenge at ICRA 2016

The Airbus Shopfloor Challenge invited robotics teams from around the world to create innovative robotic solutions for a real-life manufacturing challenge, and compete live at the IEEE 2016 International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) 15-21 May 2016 in Stockholm, Sweden.


3… 2… 1… drill! Who would have thought that drilling could be so exciting? At the Airbus Shopfloor Challenge that took place from 16th to 19th of May in Stockholm, 7 teams from around the world competed over 4 rounds of intense drilling. The event was part of the annual International Conference on Robotics and Automation.

The Airbus Shopfloor Challenge invited robotics teams from around the world to create innovative robotic solutions for a real-life manufacturing challenge, and compete live at the IEEE 2016 International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) 15-21 May 2016 in Stockholm, Sweden.

The goal of the competition was to build a robot that could drill as many holes as possible in one hour, in the right position, and with the right diameter. Robots were required to be light, modular, and open. In what turned out to be a suspense loaded two days, spectators saw the whole gamut of emotions driven by catastrophic failures, live coding of new solutions, sheer joy when the drills powered through, and the exhaustion of pulling all-nighters to compete in what was a very tight race.

Above all, it was a chance to seeteamwork, innovation, and creativity in action. All the solutions and approaches were profoundly different, and many of them worked really well, although not perfectly. That gave rise to an ideal level of competition: the task was hard enough that no one was perfectly good at it, but it was feasible and teams were able to finish 1hour rounds with a nicely drilled panel. It was also exciting to see a mix of self-taught undergraduate students battling out against semi-professional teams. Turns out, the pros didn’t win, everyone loves an underdog.

First round of the challenge

The first day started with a demo round to check that everyone could drill. Team Bug Eaters from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln was the first to leave the competition. After days of hard work, and what turned out to be an excellent learning experience, their robot just couldn’t drill.

They were one of two teams employing a delta based design for their platform. The theory was that the delta would be more lightweight, and precise – which everyone agreed was a promising solution. It’s also a riskier approach, and the time to fully implement the robot was just too short. Team Akita from Japan, using the other delta based robot, was not able to drill either because the arms weren’t stiff enough to carry the payload.

Their setup was absolutely impressive however, and everyone was treated to a live demonstration of their massively extending arms at the end of the competition. This is probably the only robot of the lot that could realistically reach many areas in an aircraft.

With two teams out of the official competition, 5 were left standing for the first official round of the competition. This was a lucky coincidence as there were really only 5 drilling stations available at the venue. Imagine setting up drilling robots in a hotel room… quite tricky indeed. All the remaining teams based their robots on custom-made XY platforms or commercial robot arms from Denso or Kuka.

Team CriGroup at the 2016 Airbus Shopfloor challenge

After the first whistle blow, everyone was silent, waiting for the drilling to begin. It is a race after all! They had to wait a bit longer however as the robots spent the first couple minutes calibrating and figuring out where the panel was so they could drill in the right place. For sensing, teams used a variety of vision systems combined with light patterns or lasers.

One by one, they started drilling. Team Vayu was quick to drill, since they had a simpler calibration strategy which was only based on one of the reference holes, instead of the three available. Their control was open loop, meaning they had no way of checking that they were drilling in the right place, and correcting. After drilling a series of holes, the drill broke, leaving them in a hurry to replace the bit.

CriGroup had to do their calibration a couple times before they were ready to start drilling. Once moving, their arm performed beautiful kinematics to go to the different positions in their schedule. They were the only team to drill in an order that seemed completely random. Instead of drilling holes one after the other in a line, they used a traveling sales man algorithm to minimize how much they needed to move the joints of their robot arm.

Team Naist performing at the challenge

Team Sirado, and team Naist seemed on track with their sophisticated drilling heads. Sirado’s driller could even sprinkle lubricant and blow away debris as it was drilling. Team R3, a robotics collective based out of Ryerson University in Ontario, Canada, thought they would outpace everyone with their 7bit drill XY system. But their robot never really started drilling. An electrical problem seemed to get the best of them that round, it can be a very long hour when things go wrong.

Remarkably, the teams were continuously improving their approaches, even in the middle of a round. At one point, CriGroup decided to drill the constrained holes, which are in areas that are obstructed by pegs on the panel. About a millimeter before a crash with the panel, their operator pressed the emergency stop, something was wrong with the code, they had to reset the system.

At the end of the first round, the judges took the panels and started scoring them one by one. This turned out to be a tedious task as each hole needed to be checked for location, precision, and diameter with the help of a perfectly drilled reference panel. A score card was filled and crosschecked.

Team Naist performing at the challenge

With each panel having up to 255 holes, the judges ended up spending over an hour converging on a good scoring technique. The panel of team Sirado, which seemed nicely hole ridden and ready to score big, ended up being misaligned due to a shift in calibration. They weren’t the only team with holes in the wrong place.

The judging was strict to replicate conditions on an actual shopfloor. The reality is, only perfect holes make sense for aircraft production. And that was the key message after round one – fast drilling without precision is useless. So the teams went back to the drawing board for the night. By the morning, team Vayu had figured out how to reduce vibrations, so that the drill wouldn’t break, team R3 fixed their electrical problem, and everyone worked on better calibration. To make things more difficult, panels were tilted 30 degrees.

Team R3 hit the ground running, their drilling of 7 holes in parallel looked like it was going to obliterate the panel in no time. Vayu, after performing even better than in the first round, encountered a new technical problem. One of their cables was a tad too short and got disconnected, but they fixed that too. Team Naist was having trouble drilling due to a software problem. Something was wrong with the positioning of their holes, and they were continuously tweaking the code. There was also an issue with their three finger solution slipping a bit.

Team Sirado at the 2016 Airbus Shopfloor Challenge

At the end of the 2nd round, it looked like teams that performed best in the 1st round were having trouble, and those that performed worst were catching up. So all in all, a very close race! Four teams were determined to be above the fray, R3, CriGroup, Sirado, and Naist. They were all given a chance to compete in the finals.

Team Vayu didn’t quite reach the same level and finished the race then, which was already a tremendous achievement. They embarked on this challenge as 2nd year aerospace students from India working on their robots from 5pm to midnight in addition to completing all their course work. They learned control on internet, and built a very clever and low-cost solution with motion controlled independently along 3 axes. Their lesson for next time: “we’d do closed loop control, use three reference holes for calibration, and reduce vibrations”.

After a few more tweaks to the code, the teams were ready to compete once again in the final round. At this point, it was really unclear who would win. The boards were tilted again 30 degrees in a different direction. This messed up the calibration system on team Sirado’s robot because of light reflections. As a result, they were forced to recalibrate their robot every couple lines of holes. Team Naist looked like they had everything under control, although it took them some time to get started.

They were still coding throughout the round. 3 minutes before the end, their drill broke. One team member sprung into action, whipping out a new drill from a pocket, and installing it for a final push to the finish line. Team R3 had swapped their 7tip driller for a 4tip driller. The bell rang, everyone cheered, proud of the tremendous amount of work and time invested, and completely unaware of who was going to win.

Team Naist, winners of the 2016 Airbus Shopfloor challenge

After intense scoring and deliberation, the winners were announced at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation award ceremony. R3 came in a close fourth place, very impressive for a team of undergraduate students. Team Sirado came in third, with their near professional solution and specialised drilling head. CriGroup, came in second, they proved to be quite reliable throughout the competition and had a good working solution that was modular, lightweight, and open. Team Naist came in first, quite a comeback, and a clear reward for their constant improvements throughout the competition.

All in all, the competition was a great success. None of the solution were perfect, but combining the best of each could prove to be a helpful strategy on the shopfloor. Winning teams received up to €20K in prize, and most important, an experience of a lifetime. They can all be proud of their tremendous accomplishments. It was impressive to see all the team’s solutions evolve in real time, with each round bringing a new series of working solutions to a concrete real-world problem.

You can also find our live coverage on twitter at #AirbusShopfloorChallenge

"Podcast: The Airbus Shopfloor Challenge, with Curtis Carson"

Read this interview of Curtis Carson, Head of Research and Technology in Industrial Strategy and Systems at Airbus, who speaks about the Airbus Shopfloor Challenge, and discusses the need for a new generation of industrial robots for aircraft manufacturing (you can also listen to it here).

Shopfloor Challenge on Humanoides

The leading French website on drones, robots and AI has picked up on the challenge, focusing on the fact that this is the first ever large-scale robotics challenge for the aviation industry.
Read the whole article (in French)

Airbus wants your robots, says IEEE

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) focuses on the Shopfloor Challenge in the latest edition of their popular Spectrum magazine.  
See what they had to say here

GEDC shares news of the Shopfloor Challenge

The Global Engineering Deans Council, the network of international senior leaders in engineering education is promoting the Challenge to their members around the world.
Find out more about this news

IFEES calls on members to submit robotic solutions

The International Federation of Engineering Education Societies has shared news of the Shopfloor Challenge amongst their global membership base.
Read the article here

The factory of the future - Curtis Carson

As digital technology and the interconnectivity of machines usher in a new era in aerospace manufacturing, Airbus is actively engaged in making its ‘factory of the future’ vision a reality.
Watch Curtis Carson's speech at BOLDtalks Innovation 2015

About the Airbus Shopfloor Challenge

With a backlog of almost 7000 aircraft on order, at Airbus we are constantly innovating to find ways to improve our manufacturing processes by integrating emerging robotic technologies into our production lines.

Each aircraft is assembled through hundreds of thousands of point-based process steps. Most tasks involve a drilling process, a point-checking (i.e. measurement) process, and a tightening process. While some operations are automated, many remain manual due to a number of constraints – including space and weight restrictions. Using lightweight automation to perform such tasks would reduce the volume of the most repetitive, physically challenging labour of thousands of aircraft operators.

Because each generation of our manufacturing lines has a lifetime of more than a decade, robotic solutions need to be integrated into existing production environments, with no dedicated physical infrastructure. Accuracy requirements are stringent, and quality is paramount. Since errors in a single step can lead to costly fixes and even disruptions in production, solutions have to meet high reliability standards. In addition, they have to be cost effective in order to be widely deployed in existing Airbus factories.

The robots currently able to perform point-based tasks at accuracy demanded by Airbus processes have a bad weight/payload ratio in order to be able to resist the loads generated by the operation. These already heavy machines use end effectors capable of multiple operations which further increase their weight. Such solutions have limited application in aircraft assembly, as they cause a multitude of problems and constraints at the industrialization phase. They require dedicated plant infrastructure, generate vibrations and other disturbances, and cannot co-operate safely with workers. There are further limitations regarding aircraft accessibility and high costs.

The Airbus Shopfloor Challenge was one of the Robot Challenges at ICRA 2016, a highlight of the annual ICRA conference, and an opportunity for leading robotics teams to share their innovative ideas with leaders in the field.

Competing teams designed and built an advanced lightweight robotic system able to perform accurate drilling compliant with aeronautic standards. Robots performed several rounds of a simplified drilling task on an artefact representing part of the aircraft fuselage. Success was measured based on the number of holes drilled within a specified time and accuracy. Some of the holes were more challenging due to access constraints. Weight cost of the robot was also be taken into account.

Airbus sent panels to qualifying teams, supporting contestants with equipment and material, subject to their proposal and needs.

The winning Airbus Shopfloor Challenge team will receive a cash prize, but more importantly, the team will have the opportunity to develop their idea for commercial application within Airbus. Other teams with promising solutions may also be invited to develop their idea further with Airbus.

Challenge details

The competition ran live during ICRA 2016. It consisted of multiple 60-minute rounds of drilling holes in an aluminium panel representing an aircraft part. The final round was a confrontation between the top two teams.

The robot was supposed to be able to drill over the whole surface while installed on a fixed station. Multiple arms/effectors were allowed as a solution, as long as adequate fleet/synchronization management was performed.

Hand-held electrical tools were used as end effectors, but participants were free to propose their own system. Manual lubrication was allowed. Airbus worked with qualifying teams to supply drilling tools and cutters.

No data transmission or remote control was permitted during a round.

All algorithms had to use an open source system as the main driver.

To qualify for the contest, the robot had to be:

  • Modularly designed, at least at the arm level
  • Weigh less than 100kg
Aircraft assembly drilling

The panel

The panel was a flat aluminium sheet measuring 700mmx7000mmx4mm. It was supported on a jig made of a 50mmx50mm aluminium frame. Two stiffeners were attached to the back of the panel.

Teams were encouraged to manufacture their own panels using off-the-shelf parts.

Airbus sent, free of charge, one practice panel to qualifying teams which submitted equipment application videos.


Three 7.5mm H7 reference holes were pre-drilled on the panel. They were used to setup the reference axis and the origin (x=longitudinal, z=normal to panel).

A pattern of 245 points where holes were to be drilled was defined in the drawing below.

A set of 10 additional points were in a separate area of the panel with constrained access. Standard temporary fasteners were used in two rows 50mm apart to model an obstacle. The successful drilling of these ‘constrained’ holes counted for a significant amount of points, in effect making it a mandatory part of the contest.

Standard tolerances of a hole were:

Diameter Code

Nominal Diameter






The hole position was also evaluated with a global tolerance of +/-0.5mm from a reference hole. (Perpendicularity was contained within the overall hole position tolerance.)


Points were awarded for each successfully drilled hole, and subtracted for non-compliant holes as well as collisions causing damages to the panel.

Following each 60min drilling round, the panel was clamped on a reference specimen through the three reference holes. Judges used a go/no go gage to validate the diameter and position of each hole. If the minimum diameter side of the gage went through the drilled panel and reference specimen (but not the max diameter) the hole was considered ‘compliant’.

Each hole drilled in the 245 point pattern within a 60min round was scored as follows:

Drilled during a 60-minute round


Within diameter tolerance

1 additional point/hole

Within position tolerance

1 additional point/hole

Not visible through the reference specimen (>3.75mm off mark)

-3 points/hole




Compliant hole drilled during a 60-minute round

3 points

Within position tolerance but outside diameter tolerance

2 points

Within diameter tolerance and partially visible through the reference specimen

2 points

Outside diameter tolerance but partially visible through the reference specimen

1 point



Drilling ‘constrained’ holes:

Eight or more compliant ‘constrained’ holes

30 points/hole

Five to eight compliant ‘constrained’ holes

15 points/hole

Damage to the panel: -10 to -300 points

At the end of the third round, points of each team were added up. The 2 highest scoring teams competed in the final round.


Only robots which drilled 7 or more compliant constrained holes in their best round were eligible for one of the prizes.


Minimum score in best round

€20 000


€5 000


€1 000






In the event that none of the robots achieved the minimum score, the panel of judges decided the winning team based on the score, cost of the system and weight/payload ratio.

Travel and Equipment Support

Registered teams applied for travel support. Qualified teams were eligible to receive up to €5000 to attend ICRA 2016. As part of this budget, Airbus reimbursed expenses for travel, shipping equipment and lodging during the conference.

They also applied to receive tools, material, or to have some of your bill of material covered by Airbus. The Challenge committee evaluated each application and award equipment based on the innovativeness, technical and economic viability of their proposed solution. 

To apply for travel and equipment funding teams, were asked to produce a video illustrating the competitiveness of their proposed solution.

All teams were informed if they were to receive equipment and travel funding by 25 March 2016, 12 GMT (noon).