A Boeing Co. employee walks past a Boeing 767 under assembly in February 2011. (Ted Warren / Associated Press)

A Boeing Co. employee walks past a Boeing 767 under assembly in February 2011. (Ted Warren / Associated Press)

Boeing streamlines assembly of KC-46 tankers, 767 freighters

EVERETT — The Boeing Co. is streamlining 767 production as it prepares to make more of the durable widebody jet in 2017.

The changes will cut the time a 767 spends in final assembly. Boeing plans to increase 767 production rate from two a month now to 2.5 planes a month next year. That includes commercial freighters and a military derivative, the KC-46A, an aerial refueling tanker.

Boeing needs to speed the plane’s final assembly line at the Everett plant to keep up with orders from the U.S. Air Force and FedEx. The tanker is still in development. Its transition to production has been delayed by several hardware and software problems, some of which are still being resolved. Boeing appears to have solved a problem with the tanker’s refueling boom. On Tuesday, a KC-46 test plane successfully refueled a C-17, a big cargo plane, in flight.

The development stumbles have put the company behind schedule for delivering tankers to the military and cost Boeing more than $1 billion in cost overruns.

The KC-46 is assembled in Everett alongside 767 freighters. However, the tanker requires “a lot more” time in final assembly, mainly due substantially more wiring and other systems related to its military role, said Joe Scarce, a Boeing vice president and the chief program engineer on the 767. The workflows of the two planes “have got to go hand in hand,” he said.

“The tanker has about the same amount of wiring as a 747, but we’re sticking it in something much smaller,” he said.

A KC-46 fuselage is too cramped to fit all the work crews at once, so mechanics end up waiting. Boeing engineers are redesigning the wiring to reduce the amount of time workers spend inside the plane.

There are dozens of other improvements Boeing is studying to cut 767 assembly time, he said.

Boeing is introducing a new method of connecting two forward fuselage sections that eliminates the need to place 1,800 fasteners by hand.

“We think that’ll save us two days flow in the factory” and reduce opportunities for damage, Scarce said. “Anytime you drive rivets, it’s a potential for doing damage” to the airplane or the mechanic.

The majority — or at least a big chunk — of safety and efficiency improvements implemented on the line come from mechanics, he said.

Boeing adopted more than 200 safety improvements on the 767 line last year and is on pace for the same in 2016. Those changes can be as simple as using better warning signs to redesigning tools, which weigh as much as 100 pounds. New tools should be under 35 pounds so anyone can lift them, he said. “Now, some tools you have to go get the biggest guy out here to lift it.”

Boeing partnered with supplier Rockwell Collins to upgrade the cockpit displays, replacing outdated electro-mechanical gauges and dials, and six cathode-ray-tube screens with digital displays. It cuts about 150 pounds from the plane. The technology was borrowed from the 787.

Customers were already changing the equipment, Scarce said. “They’d buy a brand new airplane, and the first thing they’d do is fly it to Memphis and tear apart the cockpit.”

Boeing also plans to enable 767s to send real-time data on airplane performance and maintenance. The information, called airplane health management data, allows operators to get the best performance out of their equipment. A 787, for example, constantly transmits a vast array of information while in flight and on the ground.

The 767 currently puts out a slice of that amount and getting it is much more labor intensive.

“This isn’t anywhere near the 787 now,” he said. “This improvement will get it a lot closer.”

There are active sales campaigns underway that could bring more orders, he said. “We really want to support the potential for future rate increases.”

The 767 was introduced in the early 1980s, in part to catch up to Airbus’ A300 and A310. It pioneered the use of twin engines on long-range flights, which aviation regulatory bodies largely prohibited until 30 years ago. Newer jets have pushed the 767 out of the passenger jet market, but it continues to be a popular cargo plane.

However, the air cargo business took a dive in recent years and has had a limping recovery. Some aerospace analysts and industry watchers were speculating that Boeing might soon stop making 767 freighters altogether. Then last summer, FedEx placed a record-breaking order for 767-300 freighters — committing to buy 50 and with options to buy another 50. The deal was estimated to be worth about $4.2 billion, based on aircraft valuations at the time.

Amazon reportedly considered buying 767s for its own freight airline but opted to go with 747s for now.

Industry analysts don’t see a boom in future orders. “I could see them selling another few dozen for the civil market,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst and vice president with the Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based consulting firm.

Any commercial sales will be “heavily discounted,” given the model’s age, he said.

Boeing had 78 unfilled orders for 767 freighters at the end of June, and the Air Force plans to buy 179 KC-46 tankers over the next 10 years.

“We see the potential for a really bright future,” Scarce said.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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