Boeing told its employees Wednesday that “much of the detailed design work” on its new 777X widebody jet would be done outside the Puget Sound area.
However, the head of the company’s white-collar union said this is the type of work that was outsourced on the 787 Dreamliner program, and he insisted the move doesn’t represent a new turn by Boeing to exit its Northwest base.
Boeing announced internally Wednesday that the detailed design work “will be carried out by Boeing engineering teams in Charleston, Huntsville, Long Beach, Philadelphia and St. Louis.” The company’s design center in Moscow would also contribute, a memo said.
The internal message from Mike Delaney, head of engineering, and Scott Fancher, head of new airplane development, said that “At this time, no decisions have been made about 777X design or build in Puget Sound.”
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The news heightened growing concern in Washington state that Boeing’s local workforce, which two decades ago designed the original 777 and today assembles the airplane in Everett, could lose out on designing and building the derivative model that is set to be formally launched next month and to enter airline service by 2020.
At stake is not only final assembly of the airplane — which seems likely to stay in Washington if only because moving it would be costly — but also the location of a completely new composite facility to build the 777X’s giant wing, the largest Boeing has ever designed.
Airbus invested about $643 million to build a new composite wing plant in Wales for its rival A350 jet. Boeing will have to spend a similar amount for its 777X wing facility, and Washington badly wants to have it.
Scott Hamilton, Issaquah-based aviation analyst with Leeham.net, characterized the engineering announcement as “another very good mind game that Boeing plays so well with the states.”
It leaves Washington hanging and tells South Carolina and other rivals that they are in the running for significant work, he said.
Though it’s unclear how many jobs might be involved in Boeing’s announcement, Gov. Jay Inslee in a statement called it “disappointing news to all Washingtonians.”
Ray Goforth, executive director of Boeing’s white-collar union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) described the memo as “inflammatory” and said “the way it was phrased sent some people panicking.”
Yet he cautioned against interpreting the news as a major blow to the local engineering workforce.
Detailed design work on Boeing’s previous new airplane program, the 787 Dreamliner, was largely outsourced to major partners including Japanese and Italian suppliers.
“I see this as Boeing bringing work back in (to the company), as opposed to moving work out of Puget Sound,” said Goforth.
Hans Weber, a respected technical consultant in the aviation world, agreed.
“The impact on Puget Sound isn’t necessarily going to be a reduction,” said Weber. “The capability to design the basic architecture of the airplane … that resides in Puget Sound. That doesn’t reside in Charleston.”
Detailed design is just part of the overall engineering and design effort needed to build the 777X, which will have the same metal fuselage as today’s 777 but with new engines and the new carbon fiber-reinforced plastic composite wing.
Goforth said design of the 777X will consist initially of “a fairly large chunk of core engineering” that will define the overall architecture of the airplane, especially the size and shape of the wing and the power and size of the new engines.
This includes extensive computer-based analysis to calculate and test the structural loads on these new elements and on the fuselage, the tail and the landing gear.
Only after that phase is complete does development move into detailed design of the different new pieces: the nacelle pods that encase the new engines, the insert plug that stretches the fuselage and the landing gear.
The most significant piece of detailed design will be the huge wings, spanning 233 feet and with folding tips to allow the jet to fit at airport gates. Boeing did not indicate where that design work will be done.
All these different design pieces must be coordinated and integrated to make sure the overall airplane design still works as a whole.
In Goforth’s view, “Boeing just doesn’t have the capacity anywhere else, frankly,” to do the initial core engineering and the later integration of the detailed design pieces.
“I think there’s no doubt Puget Sound will play the key integrating role,” he said.
Some of the detailed design on the 747-8, which like 777X was a derivative model rather than an all-new airplane, was done in Boeing’s Moscow design center.
But the overall design and integration work was done in Everett.
Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel said no negative inference should yet be drawn about the possibilities for 777X engineering work in Washington.
“It hasn’t been decided yet,” said Birtel.
Still, the announcement is another aggressive move in the strategy announced by Delaney earlier this year to distribute commercial-airplane engineering work around the company rather than having it concentrated in Washington.
In an internal message in May, Delaney said Boeing Commercial Airplanes would establish three domestic engineering-design centers — in Washington, Southern California and South Carolina — as well as one international design center in Moscow, and would also create formal ties to smaller engineering teams in Philadelphia and Huntsville, Ala.
“Our goal is to leverage skills from across the Boeing enterprise,” Wednesday’s message said, adding that a program the size of the planned 777X “requires that we bring together all of the talent that Boeing has to offer.”
At least in part, this strategy is driven by the dramatic reduction in work on the defense side of the company due to Pentagon budget cuts. Those cuts have left surplus engineers in Southern California, Philadelphia and Huntsville.
Another factor may be a preference to move work from union-dominated Washington to nonunion facilities elsewhere, and specifically to weaken SPEEA.
During protracted and bitter contract negotiations with SPEEA last fall, Delaney warned publicly that if the union forced an expensive contract, Boeing would inevitably move engineering work out of the Puget Sound region.
Soon after the SPEEA contract was finalized in March, Boeing said it would reduce its engineering staff here by up to 1,700 positions by the end of the year. Since then, management has shifted the work of several local engineering groups to various sites elsewhere in the U.S.
Analyst Hamilton called Wednesday’s announcement “another shot in Boeing’s war against SPEEA.”
In Washington, the commercial-airplanes unit now employs about 15,700 engineers and 7,500 technical professionals. In Southern California, it has some 1,200 engineers, and in North Charleston, S.C. about 1,000 engineers.
The Moscow design center employs about 1,200 Russian and Ukrainian engineers.
The memo from Fancher and Delaney cites “lessons learned on 787,” an apparent reference to the troubles caused by outsourcing, and a desire “to resolve design issues effectively the first time.”
Goforth said this bolsters his view that the latest moves can be interpreted as Boeing saying, “We’re not going to trust these other companies to do this work again.”
Yet clearly the 777X detailed design work is significant work that could have been done in Washington.
“The question is, how much will be done here, and how much will be done elsewhere within the company,” Goforth said, adding with reference to the wording of the memo that “much” is an “awfully imprecise term for an engineer.”
Boeing’s vagueness and its delay of any decision on what 777X work will be done locally leaves state officials scrambling, unsure of what work they can retain and what they can do to improve their chances.
Inslee insisted that “despite the announcement, it remains clear to me that we have the opportunity to actually build this airplane in our state.”
The governor said he’s working with a bipartisan group of legislators “to craft a significant package of investments” that will help persuade convince Boeing to build the plane here.
He has proposed “an extension of our existing tax incentives, a robust transportation package, a commitment to streamlined permitting, education investments, and other cost-saving measures,” all aimed at winning the prize of building the 777X.
Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org