In a milestone for its Renton factory, Boeing has started assembling the first 737 MAX, the next version of its workhorse single-aisle jet, which is set to fly early next year.

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Marking a milestone at its Renton factory, Boeing on Friday began assembling the wings of its first 737 MAX.

On a media tour Tuesday morning, Boeing executives showed off parts of the first MAX wings beginning their journey through a new, highly automated manufacturing process.

The MAX upper and lower wing skin panels hung in four massive automated fastening machines supplied by Mukilteo engineering firm Electroimpact. The first front and rear wing spars were loaded on a separate, older fastening machine.

737 MAX

Key selling point: New engines promise 14 percent better fuel efficiency than today’s 737NG model.

Expected debut: Scheduled to enter service in 2017

Orders: 2,724

List price: MAX-7, $88 million; MAX-9, $113 million

Source: Seattle Times archives, Avitas

“This world-class team is building the future,” said Keith Leverkuhn, vice president in charge of the 737 MAX program. The MAX is set to enter service in 2017.

The Renton factory is churning out more airplanes, 42 jets a month, than any factory in the world. Even as the MAX is introduced into production, the plant is preparing to ramp up to 47 jets per month in 2017 and then 52 jets a year later.

The MAX, the new version of Boeing’s workhorse single-aisle jet, features bigger, new-generation CFM engines that are more fuel efficient but heavier — which means that in places the wings must be thicker than the current 737 NG model.

Barry Lewis, a former Boeing Machinist who now directs 737 wing manufacturing, said the first wing skins and spars will be assembled into a complete wing this summer — complete with new split winglets — and delivered to the adjoining final assembly building in September for attachment to the fuselage.

The first 737 MAX will then roll out toward the end of the year and fly early in 2016, he said.

The MAX initially will be built in Renton on a separate production line that will work slowly at first, allowing the assembly team to learn and perfect the MAX build process while the other two assembly lines roll out the current models at an ever more frenetic pace.

Similarly, the loading of the first wing parts is being done separately and carefully.

For this first wing, the Electroimpact automated-fastening machines initially passed over the wing skins and only marked with an ink dot where each of the 35,000 holes should be drilled. Only after this had been meticulously checked was the skin put through the machine again, this time actually drilling the holes.

Boeing now has four of these 50-ton wing-panel assembly machines operating. Eventually it will have eight in production, with another as a spare.

Lewis said the entire wing-fabrication process is now 70 percent automated and will become 90 percent automated once all the wing-panel machines are operating.

Lewis said all the new automation in Renton enables the steep ramp-up in production that’s looming ahead.

“It means we can go to future rates without adding a bunch of people,” Lewis said. “It makes the workforce stable.”

The MAX is in an intense battle for market share with the Airbus A320neo, which launched about eight months earlier and is already in flight test. The neo has just shy of 3,800 firm orders compared with 2,724 firm orders for the MAX.

The beginning of MAX assembly marks a new phase of that rivalry.