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Boeing retools Renton plant for 737’s big ramp-up

After finishing systems installation, a Boeing 737 is prepared for wing installation at Boeing’s 737 assembly plant in Renton. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

After finishing systems installation, a Boeing 737 is prepared for wing installation at Boeing’s 737 assembly plant in Renton. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Boeing is transforming its 737 plant in Renton with new automation as it prepares to ramp up production to the unprecedented rate of 52 jets per month, or even more.

Six shiny, green 737 fuselage shells, freshly delivered by train from Wichita, Kan., sit snugly cradled in a steel superstructure like giant eggs in a carton at Boeing’s Renton factory.

Underneath, swarming mechanics install the guts of each airplane — wads of insulation blankets, snaking bundles of electrical wiring, intricately intertwined metal hydraulic tubes and pumps.

But despite appearances, those fuselages aren’t trapped in steel.

Soon, the steel walkways encasing the jets will lift away like drawbridges, freeing the fuselages to slide 150 feet forward during the night into the next position in Boeing’s newest moving assembly line.

The factory, already a showcase of efficiency with its two final-assembly lines churning out 42 of the single-aisle jets monthly, is gearing up by 2018 to build them at a prodigious pace of 52 a month — and later perhaps even more.

A key step is extending the use of moving assembly lines to the back-end shops where mechanics build the wings and stuff those fuselage shells.

The new machinery is being installed even as Boeing choreographs the addition of a third final-assembly line at the plant. This year, that line will begin building the new 737 MAX, the next version of the best-selling single-aisle jet, which already has a backlog of more than 2,700 orders.

Director of factory operations Marty Chamberlin likens it to “changing the wheels on the car as we head down the freeway at 60 miles per hour.”

The production boom offers assurance that most of the Renton plant’s 12,000 jobs won’t go away anytime soon.

All the investment and furious re-engineering of the factory is designed, said Chamberlin, to ensure Renton remains “the most productive final-assembly plant on the planet.”

Stuffing fuselages fast
During a recent visit, big wooden crates containing 737 tail parts arriving from China were lined up along the Lake Washington shore, at the plant’s doorstep.

On the plant’s other side, a train from Wichita waited to offload its cargo of fuselage shells.

The 737 supply chain is clearly humming. The plant is rolling out two jets every workday, already a record rate of 42 per month.

Airbus pumps out its rival A320 jets at the same breakneck pace, but using three factories — in France, Germany and China.

Yet under the surface of Renton’s smooth operation, inside all is in flux.

Speeding 737 production
Boeing is adding new technology and automation so by 2018 its Renton factory can boost 737 output to 52 planes a month, and later potentially more.
1 - Drilling 55,000 holes a day
2 - Wings from skin and bone
3 - Three days, three stops
4 - Finishing five jets every two days
Upper and lower wing panels arrive from Boeing's Frederickson plant. Each panel production line has four stations and a monorail to carry parts down the line to each station.

The tightly packed area where the wiring, air ducts and hydraulics are installed in the fuselages will complete its transformation to a moving line later this year, when that egg-carton array grows from six fuselages to nine.

The fuselages are suspended on rails hidden inside this newly built fixture. Each will stay in a fixed position exactly one day, then slide to the next position that night.

On the third night, fully stuffed with all their systems, three fuselages will be lifted out by crane and swung overhead to one of the final-assembly lines.

The new process will streamline work in highly congested parts of the plane, parceling it out so crews of mechanics with distinct installation jobs don’t get in each other’s way.

And with the work divided into three physically separated chunks, mechanics can have the specific tools they need right at hand in each position, said Pat Doyle, who leads a crew working the lower fuselage.

See Boeing's 737 plant automation with Dominic Gates.

The projected new rhythm will enable Boeing to go even higher than its publicly announced production-rate goal.

Some industry analysts question the wisdom of planning to ramp up so steeply, in case market demand collapses. Yet once the new MAX assembly line is at full throttle toward the end of the decade, Renton is theoretically tooled to produce up to 63 airplanes a month.

Wings remade
In January, a barge slowly carried a mysterious, 25-foot-tall white cube through the Ballard Locks and into Lake Washington. It contained a giant Electroimpact automatic drilling machine, costing tens of millions of dollars, en route from Mukilteo to Renton.

Electroimpact’s fingerprints are everywhere in the Renton building where Boeing makes the 737 wings. The high-end engineering firm, headquartered in Mukilteo, has designed most of the automated equipment that makes the wings for both Airbus and Boeing.

Now Boeing is testing a new assembly line using the Electroimpact machines to build the 45-foot-long wing-skin panels.

Fastening the long, thin stiffeners known as stringers to each aluminum wing-skin panel requires drilling approximately 5,000 holes, or about 40,000 holes a day at current production rates of those skins.

Renton’s current drilling machines, made by New York-based Gemcor, can drill and fasten 70 percent of the wing-panel holes. They cannot install bolts, which make up 10 percent of the fasteners.

Electroimpact’s moving-line system can drill 90 percent of all the holes and install bolts as well as other fasteners, completing that work in two shifts rather than the three the Gemcor machines need.

Carlos Walker, a 737 manufacturing engineer, said the new machine quietly “crushes the fastener with hydraulic force,” making much less noise than a mechanic hammering with a rivet gun.

That quiet helps the machine operators, who must be alert to any unusual sound that indicates a broken fastener or other problem.

“You always listen,” said drilling-machine operator Les Nystrom. “If we hear something funny, we stop.”

The first production wing-skin panel came off the new line in February. Sometime next year, the line will be complete with eight giant Electroimpact machines plus a spare in place, ready for a further increase in tempo to 47 planes a month in 2017.

Elsewhere in the wing facility, other Electroimpact machines automate the process of assembling the skin panels, ribs and spars into complete wings.

An automated guided vehicle glides under the semi-completed wing and lifts the lower skin panel into position. An electromagnet clamps the panel in place, and the machine drills and fastens it.

Over in one corner stands a solitary remnant of how Boeing used to assemble the wings just five years ago.

In large three-story fixtures, the 737 wing parts were held in place vertically as mechanics trudged up and down stairs from one level to the next, drilling all the holes manually.

That one lingering fixture is now used only to make the unique wings for the 737-based P-8 Navy anti-submarine jets, which are manufactured separately at a slow rate of about one per month.

It serves to remind older Renton workers of how completely their jobs have been transformed.

Job prospects
Over the past decade the Renton workforce has grown steadily — though not proportionately with the soaring production rate.

A decade ago, when Boeing was producing 21 jets per month, the company reported to the state that it had 9,275 workers in Renton.

At the end of 2013, when it produced exactly twice as many jets a month, the most recent report showed Renton’s workforce had grown by 31 percent to 12,132 people.

The increased automation is only one factor. Another major element has been Boeing’s push for “lean manufacturing,” which has shop-floor workers, as well as managers, coming up with a myriad small efficiency moves.

Mechanic Gary Laws showed a display board where workers tack Post-it notes with suggested improvements.

One such suggestion has speeded work at a crucial installation bottleneck — the landing-gear wheel well, a tight space filled with spaghetti-like hydraulics and wiring bundles.

Once installed individually, the hydraulics tubes and pumps that go in the wheel well are now delivered from Boeing’s Auburn parts plant in pre-assembled racks of connected pumps and tubes.

At the widebody-jet plant in Everett, Boeing outsourced the delivery of parts for the 787 Dreamliner to logistics firm New Breed, taking jobs away from Machinists union members.

In Renton, by contrast, management seems to want to preserve such jobs.

In a corner of the Renton site, Boeing has set up what it calls the “materials marketplace,” a big warehouse where incoming parts are staged, awaiting delivery to the assembly buildings the moment they are needed.

Operations director Chamberlin said Boeing will streamline this delivery system to ensure it’s efficient, but won’t hire New Breed to do it.

“We’ve got a long-range plan about keeping work here,” he said.

So far this year, employment in Renton is up about 100 net jobs.

“We will be trending up” to support the higher production rates, said Boeing spokesman Adam Tischler.

Laws welcomes all the automation, saying it makes a mechanic’s job less physically hard.

And although the need for new hires will probably be reduced when the new automated systems are fully in place, he said the planned production ramp-up offers job security to him and his co-workers.

“In the future, you might not have a massive hiring spree, but there won’t be any big exit out the door,” said Laws.

Originally published by The Seattle Times
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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