Boeing will build the carbon-fiber composite tail of the 777X jet at its facility in Frederickson, near Tacoma, site manager Dave Moe said Thursday.
Because Frederickson today builds the similar tail of the current 777, the decision is not unexpected. Yet it comes as a relief to state officials after recent news of Boeing moving work out of the region.
“Excellent news,” said Alex Pietsch, director of Gov. Jay Inslee’s aerospace office. “Some folks in Pierce County were concerned about the future of Frederickson, given how much current 777 production takes place there.”
Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy admitted she had been worried.
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“Of course. This is a competitive business,” she said.
The tail work adds to the state’s substantial win of the 777X against formal bids from 14 competing states.
After major concessions from the Machinists union, Boeing in January committed to 777X final assembly in Everett. It has begun work on a new building there, where it will fabricate the jet’s new composite wing.
“To see elements of the 777X being built in other parts of the state is certainly welcome,” Pietsch said.
Boeing Frederickson is split into two distinct units.
In one, about 1,000 workers machine metal wing components for all Boeing’s jets.
In the other, the Composites Manufacturing Center (CMC), some 750 employees working with carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic make the entire tail of the current 777 as well as the vertical fin of the 787 Dreamliner.
At the CMC, the pieces of the 777X tail — both the vertical fin and the horizontal stabilizer — will be fabricated and fully assembled; then wiring, hydraulics and other systems will be installed before the tails are delivered to Everett, Moe said.
He said Frederickson’s CMC is the “farm team” that has incubated all of Boeing’s work on composites.
Some workers have moved on from Frederickson to Boeing’s advanced-composites research and development facility on East Marginal Way South in Seattle.
And experts from Frederickson helped establish a duplicate production line for fabrication of the 787 vertical fin in Salt Lake City — an exact replica of the Frederickson line.
Moe said Boeing is already trying to recruit mechanics and engineers from Frederickson to shift to Everett and help build the giant wing of the 777X. “This building will provide the people and the knowledge,” he said.
The CMC was created 21 years ago specifically to build the 777 composite tail.
The facility features huge robotic machines that zip along, laying down the carbon-fiber tape formed into the skins, spars, ribs and skin-stiffening rods that make up the tails.
It has three large autoclaves, high-pressure ovens where the parts are baked to hardness.
And it has assembly lines where the skins, spars, ribs and stiffeners are put together to make the main part of the tail, and where leading and trailing edges are added.
When Boeing 10 years ago added the 787 vertical-fin work, it used a much leaner assembly process than on the 777 line.
The 777 tail is put together hanging vertically on edge within large tooling fixtures, with mechanics drilling from either side.
By contrast, the 787 tail fin is built while laid out horizontally, like a table, and held in place by smaller, more flexible tooling.
On the 777, temporary pilot holes are drilled before the wing is assembled; mechanics must finish the drilling by hand later.
On the 787, a precision automated machine pre-drills full-size holes to a tight tolerance.
Moe said the build plan for the 777X tail — which will be a little bigger than the 777 tail — is not clear yet because the engineering design has just begun. But he expects to use elements of the 787 manufacturing process and to add automation.
What will that mean for jobs?
“You’ll have to add some new people for a new project,” said Moe. “But we’ll try to keep to the same staffing as much as we can.”
Moe said his manufacturing engineers will have to fit the 777X work somewhere in the building, alongside the 777 and 787 tail work. He hopes it will take up less space than the 787 work.
Frederickson makes seven 787 tails a month, and Salt Lake City makes three.
Moe said it’s possible Boeing may move more of the 787 work to Salt Lake to make room for the 777X in Frederickson.
Space may also be found by moving tooling and storage areas out of the building.
“We’ll figure it out,” he said.
Pierce County Executive McCarthy was just off a flight from Japan on Thursday. On a one-day trade mission, she visited the Tokyo headquarters of Toray, which makes the composite raw material for Boeing in a plant across the road from Boeing Fredrickson.
“We didn’t know this when I was there,” said McCarthy. “This is great news for Pierce County. I’m thrilled we’ll be able to retain this business.”
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org