Changes ahead in Boeing’s big Everett plant

EVERETT — Boeing’s venerable 747 faces an uncertain future, as do the 767 and the 777 classic. Those older airplane models have threadbare customer demand.

Robots, meanwhile, have slashed the number of people needed to paint a 777 wing, and more bots are on the way to automate other tasks.

With so many changes coming — from the Boeing Co. product line to the way the planes are made — what will the Chicago company’s Everett plant look like in a decade?

If older models are discontinued, there will be room for other work.

Advances in manufacturing will mean fewer workers on an assembly line at Paine Field.

However, tech advances and a workforce with new expertise could help Everett compete for other projects, softening the effect of any job losses.

Wherever all this leads, it will be felt most by people on the factory floor.

Changing catalog

Four large airplane models are assembled in the Everett factory today. As customer needs change, so will that catalog, and that will affect space needs.

747: The sun is likely setting on the airplane that brought Boeing to Everett in the first place — the 747. The giant factory we see today started as a much smaller building to accommodate Boeing’s biggest jetliner.

Industry analysts say the company will almost certainly keep the 747-8 line alive until early in the next decade, when the U.S. Air Force is expected to replace the two 747s used by the president.

But the four-engine 747 is less in demand due to a weak air cargo market and more efficient two-engine alternatives. The 747 line could be closed by 2024.

“The 747 is probably dying, if not dead,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Fairfax, Virginia-based Teal Group.

An estimated 6,200 people worked directly on 747 production in 2012, according to a report commissioned by the state. And closing that line would free a lot of space in an enormous factory.

KC-46/767: Adjacent to the 747 line, Boeing builds the 767 and the military aerial-refueling tanker version, the KC-46. That project employed about 5,100 people on the production line in 2012.

The 767’s commercial life is likely finished, analysts say.

However, an overhauled 767, akin to the 737 MAX, can’t be ruled out, said Scott Hamilton, an aerospace analyst and owner of Issaquah-based Leeham Co. “Boeing is looking at it like it does everything,” he says of the 767.

Regardless, the 767 line will be busy at least through 2027 fulfilling the company’s Air Force contract for 179 aerial-refueling tankers.

And the KC-46 is the front runner in a race to win the Air Force’s add-on order for planes to replace an aging tanker fleet. The next contract is slated to go out for bid early in the next decade. Winning that would keep the 767 line busy into the 2030s.

Boeing is also trying to sell 767-based tankers overseas.

777: The fate of the 777 classic is the least certain.

It is Boeing’s most commercially successful twin-aisle jetliner, but orders have all but dried up since the company announced a successor, the 777X. At current production rates, there aren’t enough orders to keep the 777 classic line busy until the 777X’s scheduled entry into service in 2020.

Many analysts expect Boeing to slow 777 production, starting next year, to keep the line operating a couple of years after the first 777X is delivered.

At that point, Boeing could shut down the older line for good.

Or, if there are enough orders for freighters, Boeing might keep the 777 classic line alive late into the next decade, when the Air Force plans to start looking for a replacement for another aerial-refueling tanker, the KC-10.

Boeing says the cargo market is getting stronger, but many analysts are wary.

The 777 is actually one reason demand for dedicated freighters has declined. The 777 and other modern passenger airliners offer more cargo space than their predecessors.

“Even FedEx and UPS are buying belly space (on commercial flights) for non-overnight shipping,” Hamilton said.

787: Everett will still be assembling Dreamliners, quite likely at a rate of seven per month, the same rate as now. Boeing has said it plans to increase production in North Charleston, South Carolina, which will handle all 787-10 work.

Assembly of the two models currently in production — the 787-8 and 787-9 — will be split between the two sites.

Analysts say that the smaller 787-8 will likely become a niche plane used by airlines for route development, so demand for it will be less than for the bigger models.

Currently, there are two 787 assembly lines in the Everett factory. One, called a surge line, is temporary. It was set up to make up for a lagging production rate in South Carolina. As 787 production continues to smooth out, the surge line will be shut down.

The 777X line could take its place. That would put the line close to a new 1.1-million-square-foot building where Boeing workers will make the airplane’s massive carbon-fiber wings, the largest ever made by the company.

More robots

The 777X fuselage will be assembled in another nearby building, using a new approach that relies heavily on robots. Boeing says it will be more efficient, result in more accurate assembly and be safer than the current method, which relies heavily on humans.

The new approach, called FAUB, also requires far fewer workers.

Like many manufacturing companies, Boeing for decades has been increasing its reliance on automation. However, aircraft assembly requires a much finer touch and more skill than, say, car manufacturing.

As automated production and robotic technologies have improved, that is changing.

Last year, Boeing automated much of the painting of the 777. Now it takes a handful of workers a few hours to do what a few dozen did in five days.

Boeing needs to “make sure we’re always moving forward” with improving safety, productivity and quality in airplane assembly, said Jason Clark, Boeing’s vice-president of operations for the 777 and 777X programs.

It is an incremental process.

“How do we get that last percentage point? That’s what really drives us,” he said.

The factory floor tasks most likely to be automated are those that put a lot of strain on a human body or are highly repetitive, Clark said.

It doesn’t make sense to automate work that requires a lot of craftsmanship, he said.

In recent years, Boeing has talked with auto makers and other manufacturers to incorporate lessons they learned.

“It’s a whole new type of workforce that comes to bear,” and that means new training, Clark said.

In some sense, it is part of Boeing’s decades-long evolution from an airplane producer, making many pieces itself, to an airplane assembler that relies on components made by suppliers.

“I honestly don’t think we’ll ever have a lights-out factory,” Clark said.

That leaves plenty of room for concern for members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) at Boeing.

It is a concern that Jon Holden has heard time and again from many of some 32,000 Machinists he represents as head of the union’s Seattle-based District Lodge 751. Most of the members are in metro Puget Sound.

“The big question for us and our members is how does robotics and automated assembly, how’s that going to impact us?” he said.

Machinist jobs will certainly require more technical training, he said.

In 10 years, getting a factory floor job at Boeing’s Everett plant could require completing some college-level education.

The IAM is already talking with Boeing to identify what training and education workers will need in coming years, Holden said.

“There’s excitement” in the union hall and on the factory floor “about being ready. We’ve got some time, but if we wait until the last minute, we won’t have people trained in time to meet” the company’s plan to add new technologies.

Automation and robotics likely mean fewer people are needed to the same amount of work. But the union hopes new expertise and increased productivity will bring more work to the area.

“Our goal is to press, press and press for more work to be placed here,” he said. “There is plenty of work still that can be placed here to make up for job cuts from automation.”

Advances in automation do not necessarily mean replacing humans. That was the focus 30 years ago, when John Wen was working toward a doctorate in electrical engineering. Back then, “my work was more about autonomous automation” — machines operating without humans, said Wen, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Until last year, he was director of the school’s Center for Automation Technologies and Systems.

Today, his research is focused on getting humans and machines to work together, each doing what it does best.

“Humans have great sensors. Our eyes can detect subtle patterns. Our fingers are packed with tactile sensors,” he said.

Robots lag in those areas.

But that will likely change as technology improves. Look at cars, he said.

First, humans did everything. Then automatic transmission was developed, then cruise control, anti-lock breaks and other improvements. Now Google is developing a driverless car.

Many of the advances that could soon be realized won’t make someone’s job obsolete but will drive down manufacturing costs.

Developing technologies promise to simplify supply chain and inventory management. Others could mean manufacturing machines that last longer, said Frank Liou, a professor and director of the Manufacturing Engineering Program at Missouri University.

Additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3-D printing, also has big potential to cut costs, Liou said.

Earlier this summer, GE Aviation announced plans to use 3-D printing to reduce how many separate parts have to be made for engines. For example, 10 or 20 pieces that were manufactured separately and then assembled might now be produced together in one operation.

“If you use additive manufacturing, the cost of production is not a function of the part’s complexity,” Liou said.

But what looks straightforward in the research lab doesn’t always play out in the real world, said Luke Heemsbergen, a doctorate of philosophy candidate at the University of Melbourne in Australia. His research has focused on society’s use of technology.

“Factory floor jobs will need to evolve into creating new and custom solutions,” he said. “Think about how Steve jobs said he’d love to move iPhone assembly to the U.S. but there just weren’t enough manufacturing engineers there to work out solutions for the complex problems. Boeing’s workers will have to use their creativity and 3-D printers to make new and better parts, solve evolving problems and continually improve their product.”

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

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