From outside the Boeing security fence, the giant windowless, box-like building across the road from the Museum of Flight looks unremarkable, if mysterious.
For decades, drivers passing by on East Marginal Way have wondered what exactly goes on inside such a large structure. Soon, the answer will be: nothing at all.
In yet another sign of Boeing’s shrinking local footprint, managers told affected employees just before Christmas that in the next four to six months the facility, known as the Advanced Developmental Composites (ADC) center, will be shuttered.
Though relatively few people work at the facility right at this point, its symbolism will add to worry about the future of the jetmaker in this region. This is where for decades Boeing conducted its most important and secretive manufacturing research programs, both military and commercial.
Key technologies for building critical pieces of the B2 Stealth bomber and the 787 Dreamliner were developed here. The facility features two massive high-pressure ovens known as autoclaves, used to bake carbon composite materials to hardness, and robotic equipment for fabricating large composite structural pieces.
Boeing, on a drive to sharply reduce its real estate holdings while it grapples with the drastic downturn in its business due to the pandemic, downplayed the significance of the closure.
“This is one of several steps we’re taking to streamline our operations and make more efficient use of our facility space,” the company said in a statement, adding that some non-commercial airplane work will continue in the building “for the time being.”
With Boeing commercial airplane work at a low point, the number of people directly affected by the closure is relatively small at this point. The Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) union said it has only 29 members currently working at the ADC.
Yet SPEEA spokesman Bill Dugovich said news of the closure is worrisome and the union is seeking more information from the company.
“We are certainly concerned about this, not only for the loss of the existing work, but also for upcoming work on any new future airplanes,” he said.
A person familiar with the closure plans, granted anonymity to protect employment, expressed the fear that future development work “will need to be done elsewhere, most likely out of state.”
Boeing denied that moving work out of the region is part of the motivation.
Its statement said the development of advanced composites for future products currently completed at the ADC will continue, but “will transition to other Boeing facilities, mostly in the Puget Sound.”
A storied history of secret work
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Boeing workers inside the ADC fabricated large composite parts of the B-2 Stealth bomber, and in the mid-2000s the wings for the F-22 Raptor jet fighter.
In the early 2000s, it’s where engineers perfected the methods used to fabricate the wings of Boeing’s last all-new jet, the 787 Dreamliner — and trained visiting engineers and mechanics from Japan and Italy to do the production work.
In 2004, Boeing vice president Frank Statkus, then head of manufacturing technology on the 787 Dreamliner program, took reporters on a rare tour of the facility — no cameras allowed — to show off the first prototype tooling for that incipient all-composite airplane, at the time known as the 7E7. That day, he declared that “nobody in the world” could match the technology on display.
The technology that Statkus presented as advanced in 2004 is now used for everyday production. The work at Boeing’s $1 billion 777X Composite Wing Center in Everett represents the cutting edge of that technology.
And when in Boeing in 2013 worked to revamp the manufacturing process for the 777 fuselage, it did the secret development work not in the ADC but inside a large warehouse in Anacortes.
So perhaps there is a case that the ADC is no longer needed. Still, the technology developed in Anacortes failed miserably and was finally abandoned in 2019.
What Boeing will certainly lose by parceling out the ADC work is a centralized location where the top machinists and engineers inside Commercial Airplanes work together on innovative hands-on technology.
That’s what Boeing envisioned in 2010, when, after the outsourcing of 787 production work to partners across the globe had turned into a disaster, Boeing announced a course reversal: a plan to expand the Seattle ADC to employ up to 900 of its highest skilled workers and bolster its internal manufacturing capabilities.
All defense work was moved out of the facility to neighboring buildings at that time, so that the ADC was devoted exclusively to the company’s burgeoning commercial airplanes business.
Boeing’s then-spokeswoman Cris McHugh called the plan “a reflection of Boeing’s long-term commitment to the Puget Sound region.”
“We are investing in both our people and in our infrastructure and assets for the future,” she said.
Ten years on, that ambition is shredded with Boeing laid low by successive blows to its business.
First the 737 MAX crashes grounded the jet for 21 months, shutting off its main flow of cash. Then the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a deep airline downturn that forced production cuts of Boeing’s other airplanes. And deliveries of the 787 ground to a complete halt in November as Boeing struggled to fix quality control problems in manufacturing the jet.
In response, Boeing’s leadership in Chicago has instigated a sweeping effort to downsize and cut costs, with plans to slash 31,000 jobs and shrink the company’s real estate holdings.
“We’re reviewing every piece of real estate, every building, every lease, every warehouse, every site,” Boeing executive vice president and chief financial officer Greg Smith said in October.
Boeing said Tuesday it is still exploring the sale of its Commercial Airplanes headquarters in Longacres, Renton.
The ADC building won’t be sold, however, because it’s just one building in the middle of a large complex of Boeing facilities sandwiched between Boeing Field and the Duwamish River.
Instead it will be shuttered and left largely empty for now. A Boeing spokesperson did not know what the company plans to do with the giant autoclaves.
He added that Boeing has not yet determined exactly where the workers currently at the ADC will go.