Boeing cutting contract engineers on 777X development

EVERETT — The Boeing Co. has cut back the number of contract engineers working on 777X design and development. The cuts appear to be limited and unlikely to affect the airplane’s development schedule.

Several dozen contractors were let go in October, and about as many have been told their contracts will not be renewed when they expire in December. The layoffs were confirmed by engineers familiar with the program but not authorized to speak publicly about the 777X.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes uses contract engineers as needed, Boeing spokesman Paul Bergman said. “Our retention or extension of contract engineers is predicated by specific skill needs and is not tied to any particular program such as the 777X. The 777X program is on schedule having reached firm design configuration last year and completion of the Composite Wing Center this year to prepare for production.”

The company is working to begin low-rate production in the Composite Wing Center in Everett in 2017, and is on schedule to start final assembly in 2018.

The company already is using its new automated fuselage assembly system on the 777 line. That has given production teams more time to identify and resolve any problems that come up.

That process “hasn’t been completely clean, as you well know,” Boeing CEO and Chairman Dennis Muilenburg said during a recent call with investment analysts and reporters. “We’ve had some challenges ramping it up. But our ability to pull it ahead into the existing 777 line has dramatically reduced our risk. It’s allowed us to wring out the automation systems, and we’ve now delivered more than 20 units using that process. So that’s a great example of accelerating innovation, de-risking it for the future, and adds to our confidence that 777X will be delivered as planned.”

While Boeing’s 787 and KC-46 programs endured multiple development delays, the company’s newest jetliners — the 777X and 737 MAX — have been on time or ahead of schedule so far. The 787 was an all-new airplane. The other three are derivatives of existing airplanes with substantial changes.

The 777X is based on the company’s venerable 777 classic. However, the 777X is larger and integrates 20 years of technological advances. Most notably, the new airliner has all composite material wings.

At 235 feet, 5 inches from tip to tip, the 777X’s wings are bigger than any Boeing has made. Starting from home plate at Safeco Field, that is more than two-thirds the distance to the left or right field walls. Indeed, the wings will be too wide for most airports, so Boeing has designed them with folding wingtips, shortening their span to 212 feet, 8 inches on the ground. That is still one inch wider than the wingspan of a 777-300 Extended Range, the largest version of the 777 classic models.

Across the company, Boeing has trimmed its workforce this year. In Washington, it has cut nearly 5,000 positions since January. As of Oct. 26, the company had 73,372 employees in the state. Many of the cuts have come from voluntary layoffs and retirements.

“We put a lot of value into our employees and our team. And we’ve got a great team, I’d say the best team in the world,” Muilenburg said. “At the same time, we’re dealing with market realities around competitiveness and challenging market environments. So, we’ll continue to take the right actions to make sure we’re a profitable business that can invest in the future, and we’re going to continue to invest in our team.”

The number of Boeing employees varies over time as “a natural part of our business,” he said. The company is “very diligent about handling those in a balanced way, in a way that’s very respectful of our team.”

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

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