By BRYAN CORLISS
EVERETT — They were just bolts, but it was just nuts, said Larry Voigtsberger.
When Boeing started building 777s, the plans called for bolting different-sized rivets into different places along the floor of the cargo bay, the machinist said. The various rivets were bolted into nut plates, which held sections of the floor to the frame.
That meant keeping containers of all the different fasteners lying around, and people always were getting the long ones in the short holes, or making some simple mistake like that, Voigtsberger said. And that meant going back later — after even more assembly had been done — to rip the whole thing out and do it right.
It wasted time — and time is money.
But then Boeing embarked on its "lean" manufacturing initiative. Engineers started talking with mechanics about the bolts, which resulted in a decision to standardize the rivets. They got rid of most of the nut plates and started running the rivets directly into the frames.
"It saves a lot of time doing it that way," said Bruce Adsit, who’s No. 2 on Voigtsberger’s crew.
"There’s less opportunity for mistake," Voigtsberger added.
Faster assembly with fewer mistakes — this is the essence of the revolution going on at Boeing, said Tim Copes, director of operations for Boeing’s 777 program. "I can think of lots of examples of tweaks," he said, "but relatively few where we’ve had to redesign an airplane."
Boeing calls it Lean Enterprise. It has little to do with bulging waistlines, but quite a bit to do with the company’s fatter profit margins.
Boeing avionics may be 21st century, but assembly procedures have changed little since Rosie the Riveter banged together B-17s in the blacked-out factories of World War II, Copes said. For decades, the company worried about product performance, not production performance.
That began to change in 1993, when Boeing adopted Lean Enterprise.
The idea, Copes and his assistants say, is to look at each step of the manufacturing process for ways to eliminate waste. The thinking is based on the concept that paying to have parts sit around idle is as wasteful as paying to have workers sit around doing nothing.
The 777 project was the first to adopt the process, a move that cut production time for an aircraft from 77 days to 38, Copes said.
To do this, groups of engineers and machinists met to discuss how things work on the assembly line, both in terms of tooling and procedures.
In some cases, it meant major moves. An example: ladder assembly.
The ladders actually are racks attached to the top of a passenger plane’s interior. Overhead storage bins and various electrical systems are attached to them.
Boeing used to manufacture them at Harbour Pointe, then truck them to Everett. There were all kinds of snags in the system, Copes said. Assembled ladders would sit for a day or so waiting to be shipped, while at the factory others needed to be unloaded and moved over to the assembly line.
Construction itself wasn’t easy, said Michael Long, a subassembler. Once they’d get a ladder in place at a workstation, it would take a team working with lasers all weekend to make sure it was on straight, he said.
And when, inevitably, there were problems getting the ladders installed, someone would have to jump in a truck at Harbour Pointe and drive to the Everett factory to figure out what was wrong, Long said.
The solution: Build them next to the assembly line in Everett. Boeing made the move in July.
There are some obvious benefits to the move, said Eddie Santos, one of the leads on the assembly crew.
But making the move also meant rethinking the whole manufacturing process, he said.
New tools were designed to hold the ladders in place so mechanics working on the assembly could do it at workbench level, instead of over their heads inside the plane. The new process is more ergonomically correct.
The new tooling simplified processes, so instead of taking a whole weekend to ensure the pieces were on straight, now it takes only one shift.
The new procedures also allow the work to be done in a smaller space than was required doing it the old way at Harbour Pointe, Santos said.
That’s a key factorywide, Copes said. Consolidating operations means there’s extra space to do new things.
One of those things will be the new 747X series of planes, said Alan Mulally, president of the Boeing Commercial Airplanes Group. The company last week committed to building the first of this new generation of jumbo jets, the Longer Range 747-400 (formerly called the 747-400X) for Qantas, which ordered six of the planes.
The changes have made life easier for assembly workers, said Cord Hight, a ladder assembly worker Boeing officials made available for an interview.
Compared to working at Harbour Pointe, "it’s awesome," he said. "We can see what’s happening. It makes more sense. … Everything seems to fit a little better."
And the results have been awesome on Wall Street as well, where Boeing stock is trading at record high levels.
Chief Executive Officer Phil Conditt bragged during a conference call with analysts last month that the time spent assembling a 737 had been cut from more than 30,000 man-hours to less than 10,000.
Those kinds of efficiency improvements have reduced Boeing’s production costs, meaning it has made more money this year, even while selling fewer planes than it did last year.
However, the transition hasn’t been painless.
When engineers and machinists first started meeting to discuss problems and solutions, engineers were quick to point out flawed mechanics’ procedures, but slow to accept there were things they were doing wrong — and vice versa, Copes said.
"We’ve got a lot of pride, too," Long said. "We wanted to do it our way."
And "whenever you accelerate, you’ve got to step up the pace," Voigtsberger said.
But in most cases, the changes have been evolutionary, not revolutionary, Copes said.
Besides, some of the changes were no-brainers, like the bolts on the cargo floor, Voigtsberger said.
"The hardest part was making sure everyone got the word."