Ahead of this month’s Farnborough air show near London, a media tour of Boeing’s Everett plant last week showcased assembly lines leaner and more productive than at any time in the past two decades.
And in detailed briefings, Boeing leaders — putting the nightmare of the 787’s birth behind them — talked about developing another all-new airplane.
They also hinted that the colossal new 777X wing center in Everett, which is rapidly filling with sophisticated robotic equipment, will be a vital part of the plan for that future jet, an encouraging sign for the region.
Boeing officials did reveal one tough challenge: Engineers and mechanics are struggling to get a new robotic system for assembling the 777 fuselage sections up to speed.
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The tour confirmed what employees have said about the 787 Dreamliner. The litany of early supply-chain and manufacturing problems is finally in the past and production is now going full tilt.
Both the 787 and the narrow-body 737 are rolling out of the assembly plants at rates never seen before, and are gearing even higher.
Meanwhile, development of the 737 MAX in Renton is ahead of schedule. Preparations in Everett for the next new airplane after that, the 777X, are impressive, despite the wrestling with the fuselage robots.
Beyond those two jets, Boeing’s next all-new airplane, tentatively discussed a year ago at the Paris Air Show, will be firmly in play at Farnborough.
Mike Delaney, the vice president in charge of future airplane development, confidently talked up the potential to follow the 777X with a jet sized between today’s single-aisle and twin-aisle models — now referred to as the New Mid-market Airplane, or NMA.
Rehearsing his Farnborough pitch, Delaney spoke of a potential launch around the end of the decade, which implies the need before that for some fateful decisions for this region on how and where the plane will be built.
Delaney said the high cost and all the grief Boeing incurred on the 787 are now paying off as it develops the 777X composite wing.
As for the NMA, “We don’t have to invent something,” Delaney said. “Now it’s a matter of leveraging the investment into something new.”
One such investment of vital importance to this region’s aerospace future is Everett’s $1 billion 777X composite-wing center.
“There’s a whole bunch of objectives in this building beyond just supporting our 777X program,” said Delaney. The wing center, he added, “becomes the jumping-off point” for the NMA.
In days leading up to the Farnborough show and just ahead of Boeing’s 100th birthday, the jet maker certainly faces financial challenges, not least of which is the $32 billion overhang in deferred 787 production costs.
Facing fierce competition from Airbus and a potential revenue dip during the transition to new plane models, Boeing is pushing hard to cut costs, targeting the loss of 4,000 local jobs by midyear through attrition, voluntary buyouts and some layoffs.
In addition, with a shaky global economy, the long boom in aviation looks increasingly at risk.
Yet, while European rival Airbus has suffered significant delays this year in delivering both its new A350 and A320neo jets, everything’s going well at Boeing’s Seattle-area plants.
Everything, that is, except the automation technology Boeing secretly developed inside a former boat-building facility in Anacortes in 2013.
For ergonomic reasons, Boeing traditionally built a fuselage by having mechanics first put the lower lobe together upside down, then lifting the part by crane into a giant tool that turns it right-side-up.
That’s done before taking it back to another fixture to add the upper lobe.
Inside a new facility beside the Everett final-assembly plant, the new 777 automation technology deploys the sort of robots used in automotive factories to drill and fasten the whole thing in a single upright position.
During the Farnborough Air Show two years ago, Boeing posted video of the robots swinging around in early testing. But in real-world production, it’s not swinging so smoothly.
“I’ll be very blunt with you. It’s not easy,” said Jason Clark, the vice president in charge of 777 manufacturing.
“It will break productivity loose in the future,” he added, but for now “we don’t have it down.”
The problem is that for the robots to do their repetitive work, the 40-foot-long aluminum panels that come in from Japan and Wichita, Kansas, must be precisely aligned, essentially snapping together.
Because the panels in the new system are not held tight in a rigid fixture, Boeing’s mechanics have had to manually align the panels to achieve precision before the robots can do their work.
Clark said Boeing has so far successfully made 15 fuselage sections this way — all of excellent quality but built painstakingly slower than planned.
Boeing had hoped to move the old giant turn tool out of the way and have the robots making most of the 777 fuselages by the end of this summer. Now the goal is the end of the year.
Still, the 777 production rate is unaffected. Until the new automated system is ready, the old tooling is still producing eight 777s a month.
Clark said he’s confident he’ll have it perfected within a year, well ahead of the first 777X in 2018.
787 production fixed
The nearby 787 assembly line is testament to Boeing’s ability to get things right in the end.
The line has been transformed, free of the clutter of past years when Boeing scrambled to fix myriad problems.
The number of days it takes to assemble a Dreamliner is down 52 percent from two years ago, said Kim Pastega, vice president of 787 production.
Having just hit a record production rate of 12 jets per month, the focus now is introducing further efficiencies that will allow up to 14 jets to be produced monthly in a couple of years.
Pastega showed the path to that ramp-up: a scale model of a new production layout. That setup is expected to be implemented once space is created when Clark finally moves out the big 777 turn tool at the back of the assembly bay.
The plan is do both the 787 wing-to-body join and the final-body-join (of the forward, mid and aft fuselages) at one station instead of two.
Ahead of that enhancement, 787 assembly is already today “leaps and bounds better than it was before,” according to a mechanic who works on the jet, speaking on condition of anonymity because Boeing won’t let employees speak freely to the media.
While Boeing still has a whole team of mechanics dedicated to reworking and delivering the remaining “teenage” 787s poorly built seven years ago, Pastega eagerly reported that the Dreamliners going out the door today are “at the highest condition of assembly they have ever been.”
An all-new jet ahead
At the Farnborough air show, starting July 11, Boeing will fly one of four flight-test 737 MAX airplanes, the first up of its new jet models.
“There’s no drama around here,” said Michael Teal, chief project engineer on the MAX. “Testing has been going very well, hitting expectations.”
The flight-test schedule suggests Boeing could deliver the first MAX variant, the MAX 8, ahead of schedule in the first half of next year.
At Farnborough, Boeing may announce modifications to one or both of the follow-on variants, the MAX 7 and the MAX 9.
Yet Boeing’s major engineering effort has already shifted from the MAX toward the 777X.
Just a month after journalists were first allowed into the new 1.2-million-square-foot 777X composite-wing center, a return visit to the vast space showed even more progress.
New automated fiber placement machines supplied by Mukilteo-based Electroimpact for fabricating the wing skins have now joined similar machines designed to make the 105-foot-long wing spars.
The 777X is set to fly in 2019 and deliver the next year.
After that, Boeing will pivot its engineering resources yet again. Its favored proposal now is the NMA, a midsize, midrange plane carrying 200 to 250 passengers distances less than 5,700 miles.
Delaney said such a jet could be delivered toward the middle of the next decade, implying a launch about 2020.
It’s bigger and flies farther than Boeing’s now out-of-production 757 and so could open up new routes for airlines not viable today.
Yet to find buyers, it must be priced cheaper than the smallest wide-body, the 787-8.
Delaney said Boeing is trying to establish market pricing. The next step is to work out how to build it and scale up production at a cost that can deliver a profit.
That’s when key decisions affecting the Puget Sound region come into play. What will Boeing build in-house or outsource? Where will the NMA’s composite wing be built? And where will final assembly occur?
Before any official launch, Boeing will already have sketched out the answers to most of those questions.