A swifter 767 line

Going smaller led to big things for the Boeing Co.’s 767 production line.

Beginning with aircraft number 1,001, Boeing is building its 767 in an area of its Everett factory that takes up 44 percent less space than the original production line.

The move, which took 13 months to complete

, was done to make room for a temporary assembly line of Boeing’s delayed 787 Dreamliner, although Boeing executives recently have hinted the 787 line might not be temporary.

“We would not have made the investment we made” if Boeing didn’t see demand for the 767, said Jim Albaugh, president of the commercial airplanes division, at an event in February commemorating the 1,000th 767 built in Everett.

The dramatic shrinking of the 767 production bay came at a time when Boeing was putting in its bid for a contract supplying the U.S. Air Force with 179 of its 767-based aerial refueling tankers.

On Feb. 24, the Air Force picked Boeing’s tanker over that of European rival EADS, the parent company of Airbus. EADS had planned to build a big, brand-new factory in assembly plant in Mobile, Ala., if it won the contest.

The Air Force deal will keep Boeing’s 767 line busy in Everett for years to come. Without it, Boeing has a backlog of roughly 50 unfilled orders, which would take until 2013 to finish building.

Even before the Air Force picked Boeing’s tanker, Albaugh predicted new orders for the commercial 767 could be on the way, thanks to the cost efficiencies the company was able to come up with for its tanker bid. He also saw a greater demand for widebody aircraft like the 767 that Boeing and its rival, Airbus, can satisfy. EADS, Airbus’ parent company, competed against Boeing for the Air Force contract with an Airbus A330-based tanker.

Boeing’s new 767 line, which takes up the back part of its original bay in the factory, is ramping up to a rate of two 767s monthly, said Darrel Larson, director of 767 manufacturing. That’s the maximum production rate the Air Force said it would require for its tanker contest.

“We’ll demonstrate we can meet that this year,” Larson said last month.

Even in its smaller space, the 767 is being built 20 percent to 30 percent more efficiently than the first 1,000 planes, Larson said.

“You don’t arrive at a milestone like this without excellent product,” said Kim Pastega, general manager of the 767 program.

To comply with government rules limiting access of employees on military projects, Boeing will cordon off the 767 work area when it’s producing tankers. Boeing already has experience balancing commercial and military projects at its Renton site, where its workers build both 737 commercial jets and 737-based submarine hunters for the military.

Absent a delay in the contract, Boeing could begin assembling the first 767 tanker in Everett in 2014, Pastega said the day after Boeing was announced as the winner. Development work on the 767-based tanker is well under way, she said. The Air Force expects to receive its first tanker in 2015 and a total of 18 tankers by 2017.

“This will be a rapid-paced program,” said Dennis Muilenburg, president of Boeing’s defense division, in a briefing after the tanker announcement Feb. 24. “The need for this tanker is significant; we’ll be moving out briskly with our customer.”

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