Washington's 650 aerospace suppliers build the products that make Boeing Co. jets possible. Collectively, they also make up one of the best reasons for keeping Boeing aircraft programs in the state.
Washington's vast supplier base is a huge asset to the region, the consulting firm Accenture found when it evaluated the state's competitive edge last year.
Perhaps more than ever, the suppliers' performance is under scrutiny from Boeing, which likewise will reflect on the state, as the aerospace giant ratchets up the production pace of its jet programs.
"The aerospace supply chain has grown, not just in size … but in capability and sophistication," Stan Deal, vice president of Boeing supply chain management for commercial airplanes, said during an international summit for suppliers this month in Seattle.
Boeing planes obviously are growing in sophistication as well -- moving from aluminum frames to mostly composite and incorporating increasingly complex software systems.
Deal, like other company executives, acknowledges the company's strategy for outsourcing and supply chain management on the 787 program was a source of frustration -- and a learning moment for Boeing. The company entrusted too much high-level design and other responsibilities to suppliers unprepared to handle it. The result: more than three years in delays.
Boeing also learned lessons in managing a ramp-up in plane production from a "painful" experience on the 737 in the 1990s, Deal said.
Today, the company demands what some suppliers call a "very intrusive" look into what's going on in their factories, John Byrne, Boeing's director of supply chain strategies, told suppliers in February. Suppliers could feel like Boeing is "interrogating" them about data on their plants, their own suppliers and their employees. It's an effort to make sure Boeing isn't let down by the supply chain again.
But it's not just keeping up production that will keep a supplier in Boeing's good graces.
"What we're looking for is suppliers that can innovate and help us make the product better," said Kent Fisher, vice president of Boeing supply chain management, at the summit in Seattle.
Boeing is facing increasing competition not only from longtime rival Airbus but also from newer competitors like Comac in China, Embraer in Brazil and Bombardier in Canada. Therefore, the company is starting to place a higher priority on finding suppliers that will put Boeing first, Deal said.
"You're going to see more of a focus on doing business with Boeing," Deal said. That includes using the same design and manufacturing tools and processes as Boeing.
"We recognize that our supply chain has a choice" in which jet maker to concentrate their business with, Deal said. However, not all airplane programs reach production numbers as high as many of Boeing's jets, he said, noting the Everett-built 777 program's recent milestone of reaching 1,000 deliveries.
Ultimately, Deal said, Boeing is "only as good as the suppliers we choose to do business with."
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