Since Boeing stepped up 777 production in January, the assembly line in Everett has hit trouble. The number of tasks running behind schedule...

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Since Boeing stepped up 777 production in January, the assembly line in Everett has hit trouble. The number of tasks running behind schedule almost doubled and employee overtime surged to ensure on-time delivery.

Undaunted by those warning clouds, Boeing is revving for a further steep climb in 777 output even as it aggressively retools the production system. The jet maker plans to ramp up production of the popular jet from four planes a month now to seven a month by next year. And it may raise the pace further, to an unprecedented 10 planes monthly.

Boeing plans to achieve this while simultaneously making a major switch in how the 777 is made, shifting to a moving assembly line — something that has not been done before with such a large plane.

And that big logistical switch must happen under a pressing deadline: Most 777 production is in a large assembly bay that must be vacated by next summer, to make way for the new 787.

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Making it work will be tough.

“It’s like they are betting the future of the company on this, not just on the 787,” said one lead mechanic on the 777, who asked not to be named.

Dan Becker, who runs the Everett factory, acknowledged the massive technical challenge ahead.

“The answers to this transformation aren’t written in the back of the book,” he said.

Becker, vice president and general manager of 747, 767 and 777 jet production, said the company had anticipated the recent problems as it accelerated production and began the shift to a moving line. “We knew it was coming.”

He insisted that Boeing is fixing what’s wrong and the problems are abating.

No planes have been delivered late.

Total transformation of 777 manufacturing is still the plan, Becker said. “We remain steadfast in getting it done,” he said. “The vision has not changed.”

Boeing has already shaved eight days out of the 777 manufacturing cycle in the past year or so, even while introducing major new models of the plane. Those changes caused some production snags.

But the 777 production problems became more acute at the beginning of this year, according to an internal document obtained by The Seattle Times, when the rate was stepped up from three to four planes per month.

In the first half of 2004, at the old production rate, the overall number of 777 tasks behind schedule at any given time was averaging 1,600. A month ago, the average was 3,100 tasks behind schedule.

Because of this backlog, overtime in critical 777 areas has shot up from an average of 11 percent a year ago to 20 percent a month ago.

Becker conceded that the number of tasks delayed is “higher than we normally see” and that his managers are focused on reducing overtime. Pointing to success in fixing what he termed a “transitional disruption,” Becker said that since mid-February the number of 777 tasks behind schedule has been declining again.

Though the internal document bears out his assertion, at the beginning of this month the average number of tasks behind schedule still hovered between 2,500 and 3,000.

The document blamed the problems on a list of factors. Some — parts shortages, late engineering changes, manufacturing errors — are part of the routine of airplane making.

Other factors on the list — the production rate increase, the days shaved off the production cycle, and the transition to the moving line — exacerbated delays.

Becker said the 777 program has borrowed employees from other programs to cut the backlog of work. And new hiring planned for the next rate increase in November is being brought forward, the document said.

A smooth, predictable 777 production flow likely cannot happen until Boeing finishes the initial transition to the new moving assembly line — touted as a super-efficient, cost-saving change modeled on the Toyota manufacturing plants.

The big structural pieces of the 777 are put together in two enormous tooling jigs at the back of one bay in the huge Everett assembly plant. Because the 787 is going to be assembled in that bay, those must be moved to the adjoining bay by next summer.

At the wing-body join, where the 777 wings are attached to the short barrel of the center fuselage, mechanics now walk along acres of steeply sloping deck that descends from the wingtip to the floor. At the final body join, scaffolding engulfs the airplane as the rest of the fuselage is added.

Both these structures must be dismantled, and replacement fixtures set up in the adjoining bay. The wing-body join jig is due to move this fall. The final body join jig will go in the first half of next year.

In the new system, the wiring and interior fixtures will be installed as the airplane moves down the line. Boeing eventually wants to join the big pieces of the airplane together on the moving line as well, but for the moment, Becker said, “We don’t have a technical solution to that.”

So the two big joins will remain stationary points in the assembly process. Becker said that rather than move the old jigs to the new bay, Boeing will install new simplified jigs that reuse some parts of the old ones.

How can Boeing dismantle such monumental fixtures and shift to new ones without disruption?

Becker cited a successful transformation in Wichita in the mid-’90s, when fabrication of the 737 fuselage was switched from one building to another over a six-week period, with minimal impact to production.

“We know how to do this,” he said.

But there’s one more complicating factor: the recent sales surge. Last month, Air Canada ordered 18 777s and Air India 15 more.

To meet the orders and make room for new sales, by year end Boeing plans to increase the rate again from four planes to five planes per month, according to internal documents. In 2007, the rate will go to seven per month, equaling the record rate of 1999.

Boeing would not comment on its rate plans. But according to internal documents, the company is also exploring the option of raising the 777 rate higher than it has ever been, to 10 of the widebody jets per month, as early as 2007.

That kind of upturn would inevitably further strain production.

In 1997, Boeing famously failed to handle a dramatic ramp-up in production and took a $2.6 billion charge after two assembly lines ground to a halt. That crisis shook the company.

Yet Boeing seems to have regained the ambition and confidence lost then.

As it battles against European rival Airbus, Boeing appears determined to propel the 777 forward: transform the line, cut costs and increase production, all at once.

“It would be easy to do nothing,” said Becker. “But that’s not a solution that works long term for our competitiveness.”

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com