Boeing is being characteristically silent on the question, but aerospace industry insiders say the most likely locations are Everett and Frederickson, in Pierce County.
“We can and will compete to have the wing fabrication” in or near Everett, Mayor Ray Stephanson said.
The Chicago-based company has already committed to assembling the 777X in Everett, so the decision now is whether to make the carbon-fiber-composite wings at an existing plant that already works with the material or at a new factory, perhaps on land west of Paine Field, which offers proximity to final assembly.
Frederickson’s workforce has more experience with making airplane pieces using the industry-leading technology. The Boeing plant there makes part of the 787’s tail, and next door is Toray Composites, a Japanese-owned company that produces giant spools of carbon-fiber tape, the raw material used to make the finished components.
The wings will be made in the “Puget Sound region,” said Scott Lefeber, a Boeing spokesman.
That means other places in Washington with composites manufacturing experience, such as Moses Lake, are out of the running.
Boeing figures it needs 1.1 million square feet in a building and a maximum of 2,760 workers to make the 777X wings, according to specifications the company sent to states bidding for the work.
The highly publicized national search for the cheapest production site for the wings and the fuselage ended abruptly on Jan. 3, when Machinists union members who work at Boeing voted narrowly to approve a long-term labor contract that cut benefits in return for securing 777X work in Washington.
Boeing won’t say when it will decide where to make the wings, Lefeber said.
But some local public officials say they expect to hear in February if Boeing wants to use an undeveloped area on the west side of Paine Field, which is near the company’s massive Everett plant.
“The most logical place would be right there at Paine Field,” said Scott Hamilton, an aerospace analyst with the Issaquah-based Leeham Co.
Even if the wings aren’t made in Snohomish County, having the technology in metro Puget Sound will help Everett compete for future plane production, he said.
State officials won’t say which location they pitched in Washington’s response to Boeing’s request for proposals from states.
But they seem to agree that Everett makes the most sense.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget proposal includes $1 million split between the University of Washington and Washington State University to expand and improve education in advanced manufacturing, including composite materials in Snohomish County.
Everett Community College already offers training in composites manufacturing, as does Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood near Frederickson.
Wherever Boeing chooses to fabricate the 777X wings, it has to figure out how to move them to final assembly. At more than 20 feet across and at least 114 feet long, they are among the largest wings ever produced. In fact, the 777X’s wingspan will be so big that Boeing has said the tips will fold up so the plane can park at existing airport gates.
“The further you get away, the more the transportation challenges are,” said Dave Waggoner, the airport director at Paine Field.
One option is reducing the size of what needs to be shipped. For example, Boeing might be able to ship the wing before attaching the flaps and leading edges, making it narrower.
That might be necessary if the wings are made in Frederickson and the company wants to move them by rail.
The Boeing plant there connects to Tacoma via Tacoma Rail, which has clearances of at least 20 feet, according to Chris Herman, the freight rail policy and program manager for the state Department of Transportation.
From there, the wings could possibly go to Everett either by water or by rail operated by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co.
BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas would not answer questions about the minimum clearance between Tacoma and Everett.
“We do not disclose specifics, however, if feasible, we work with customers to accommodate service needs,” Melonas wrote in an email.
Boeing could very well be talking to BNSF. The aerospace company already has approached Pierce County officials about making the 777X wings in Frederickson, according to Bruce Kendall, president and CEO of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.
“That’s what has to be studied, is it feasible” to move them from the plant to the port? he said.
Trucking the wings those 13 miles could be easier than going by rail, Kendall said.
Boeing already moves 787 tail sections north to Everett via I-5 and I-405, he said.
Public officials in Snohomish County aren’t worried, though.
“Every time you handle a major structure, you increase the risk of damaging it,” said Waggoner.
The county and Everett already have streamlined the permitting process — promising to go from filing an application to issuing a permit in four weeks — and the county’s offered to help Boeing defray the cost of a new sprawling plant at the airport.
The county and Boeing already partnered to build the Dreamlifter Center, which cost about $35 million.
“We agreed to build, and they agreed to pay for the debt service and rent the land,” Waggoner said.
He hopes they can work together again.
Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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