Boeing to build carbon-fiber 777X wings in Everett

EVERETT — The Boeing Co.’s decision to build the carbon-fiber-composite wings for the new 777X airplane at a new building at its Paine Field facility means thousands of jobs and a foothold in industry-leading technology for Snohomish County.

But Boeing has to answer some big questions about how to allocate space at the site while continuing a major refresh of its jetliner catalog. The company might find that even the biggest building in the world isn’t big enough for everything it needs to do in the next five to 10 years.

It is difficult to know exactly what those challenges will look like because they depend on what happens with all of the airplanes currently built in Everett — the 747, 767, KC-46A, 777 and 787.

Boeing itself isn’t sure how it will all work out, but it will be creative with space, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner said during a press conference Tuesday at the company’s airplane delivery center at Paine Field.

“We’re going to start tearing down buildings” later this year to make room for a new 1-million-square-foot wing fabrication facility, he said.

The new building, which the Chicago-based company is calling a composite wing center, will replace a cluster of drab, 1960s-era brick office buildings on the north side of the big factory where it assembles wide-body jets.

More than 2,000 workers will make carbon-fiber components for the 777X wings in the center.

The wings will be assembled somewhere else on site, but Boeing hasn’t figured out exactly where yet, Conner said.

Boeing plans to make room for the 777X assembly line in the factory by shutting down the 787 surge line, Conner said.

The surge line was set up last year and is slated to end in 2015 as the production rate increases at Boeing’s second 787 final assembly facility in North Charleston, S.C.

But the company’s consistently optimistic expectation about Charleston’s ability to increase output has been countered by aerospace analysts’ skepticism.

“I don’t know anybody who believes” the Everett surge line will end in 2015, said Scott Hamilton, an aerospace analyst with the Issaquah-based Leeham Co.

North Charleston’s target is seven planes a month, but it is currently assembling one to two a month, he said. “The surge line will be here easily three or four more years.”

That would start bumping against company’s goal to start 777X production in January 2018, as laid out in a request for proposals sent last year by Boeing to states bidding for the 777X work.

The company also faces many questions about how to transition from the existing 777 to the 777X, as well as questions about the future of the 747.

Boeing expects the 777X line will employ 3,250 workers in 2018, with a peak of 8,500 in 2024 and a sustained workforce of 7,250 by 2026, according to the bid documents.

That means that even at its peak, the new jetliner will employ fewer workers than the classic 777, which had an estimated workforce of about 12,100 a couple years ago, according to a recent study commissioned by Washington Aerospace Partnership.

Boeing will invest “hundreds of millions of dollars” to build the 777X in Everett, Conner said.

On hand for the announcement were political and union leaders, including Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson; U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell; and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) aerospace coordinator Mark Johnson.

The announcement didn’t come as a surprise — the only other viable option was Frederickson in Pierce County, where Boeing has a plant that does composite work for the existing 777 and for the 787. But as The Herald reported in January, transporting the massive wings from Frederickson would have been a significant challenge.

Building the wings in Washington means the state will be on the cutting edge of composite-materials manufacturing, which advocates say will become standard for automakers and other industries as well.

“These are going to be built in Everett, but this is a statewide win,” Gov. Jay Inslee said.

Composite-material manufacturing means airplanes can be lighter and stronger than they would be using traditional materials such as aluminum, steel and titanium. They also are expected to have lower maintenance costs.

But the technology is still maturing, and it’s only in the past decade that the aerospace industry has started using carbon fiber in large parts of airplanes, as in Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A380.

While the 777X will have composite wings, the body will use traditional metals.

Boeing plans to deliver the first 777Xs to customers by 2020. The jetliner will be a redesigned version of the popular and profitable 777. Since its formal unveiling in November at the Dubai Airshow, Boeing has announced nearly 300 orders and commitments for the 777X, which promises high fuel efficiency, long range and big capacity.

The wings will be the largest ever built by Boeing — so long that the tips will fold up so the plane can park at existing airport gates — and will require up 2,760 workers to make, according to specifications the company sent late last year to states bidding for the work.

Boeing didn’t finish the bid process. When members of the Machinists union narrowly approved a new long-term contract in a Jan. 3 vote, Boeing said it would abide a promise to build the airplane in Everett and the wings in metro Puget Sound. Machinists had overwhelmingly rejected a similar contract proposal in November.

A few days before that vote, the Legislature and the governor approved extending tax breaks for Boeing worth approximately $8.7 billion over 16 years.

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

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