In the last quarter of 2018, Boeing failed one element of its quality control audit on the 747, 767 and 777 legacy airplane programs in Everett, a setback in its plan to shift its quality system to one that relies on fewer inspectors overseeing the work of mechanics.
Quality inspectors at Boeing, angry at management’s plan to streamline and automate some quality-control processes with fewer inspectors overseeing the work of mechanics, point to a recent quality-control audit that missed one of its targets as evidence that the company’s effort is unwise.
Boeing plans to eliminate up to 900 quality- inspector positions as part of a sweeping transformation of its manufacturing system over the next two years. The idea is to move away from reliance on inspections by a second set of eyes to find any defects after a mechanic does a job. Instead, Boeing is redesigning tasks to make it easier for mechanics to get things right first time, and deploying smart tools and digital technology to track and monitor quality.
But in December a Boeing system called Process Monitoring revealed a breakdown in quality. In one job category, an internal audit found only 93 percent of tasks were done correctly, short of the required 95 percent.
Responding via email to questions on what happened, Boeing spokesman Paul Bergman said the system “worked as designed and does not indicate a failure,” because it spotted shortcomings in the manufacturing process, so they can be addressed.
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“If quality levels are not met, we take action to correct the situation,” Bergman said.
But inspectors say it points to the need for continuous, on-the-spot inspection of work as it is completed.
Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), said that Boeing notified the safety agency of the audit failure in December and the FAA immediately opened an investigation, which is ongoing.
“We have a team of inspectors on site at the Boeing Everett manufacturing facility. We have increased surveillance as part of our investigation,” Gregor said. “Once the FAA’s investigation is completed, we will work with Boeing to correct any issues.”
An audit falls short
Process Monitoring, which has been in place for years, is basically a system of sampling: A small percentage of jobs in certain categories are randomly selected for monitoring by an auditor, who comes and watches as the mechanic performs the selected job.
The auditors are Boeing employees, in a separate department from the quality inspectors. To maintain the integrity of the system and comply with regulatory standards, the jobs monitored in those audits must maintain a certain quality rate.
As long as they do so, fewer inspections are needed.
For the final three months of 2018, to maintain this form of quality control in one important job category on the 747, 767 and 777 airplane programs, Boeing engineering set the requirement of a 95 percent pass rate.
If that seems an inadequately low quality requirement, Bergman said it covers only this part of the manufacturing process; further checks downstream on the assembly line “ensure our final products conform 100 percent with our engineering design and regulatory requirements before delivery.”
And the FAA’s Gregor said the agency doesn’t issue a certificate of airworthiness until Boeing has addressed any nonconformances identified during the manufacturing process.
The specific category of work that fell short of even the 95 percent requirement is called “Bond and Ground,” which means ensuring that all the components in the airplane are electrically grounded and that the connections or bonds between the components provide a continuous grounded electrical pathway through the metal airframe. This is important to safely dissipate through the jet’s wingtips or tail any buildup of static electricity or a lightning strike.
If a lightning strike were to travel through an airplane and hit an improperly grounded component, it could explode or start a fire.
According to a Boeing internal presentation, the Process Monitoring audit monitored 1,200 “Bond and Ground” jobs out of a total of 60,000 jobs over the final three months of 2018 on those three older airplane programs. The audit showed that only 93 percent of the sampled jobs were properly performed — a fail.
As a result of the failed audit, in that job category Boeing must now revert to the former system using quality inspectors to check jobs once work is complete.
This much more labor-intensive regime must continue until 10 consecutive airplanes move through the system and meet the required quality standard. That will take months, since mechanics currently build a new 747 only once every 40 work days, a new 767 every eight work days and a new 777 every six work days.
Safer and simpler?
Boeing’s Bergman said the safety and quality of its airplanes is the jet maker’s “highest priority.”
“We have strict methods and redundancies throughout the production system which ensure our final products comply with design and regulatory requirements,” he said.
Bergman denied that the audit failure represents a setback in Boeing’s push toward more sampling and self-certification by mechanics.
He added that though Boeing is “investing in technologies that enhance our quality monitoring, make jobs safer and simpler, and less susceptible to error,” it is not eliminating all checks by quality inspectors.
He said Boeing is eliminating such checks only where manufacturing processes are deemed “stable,” meaning that few defects are found. He added that Boeing will always perform quality-inspection checks for any “critical safety operations.”
Some Boeing quality inspectors — and the International Association of Machinists (IAM) union that represents them — suggest the company may be artificially reducing the number of defects reported during front-line inspections so that more processes are deemed “stable,” therefore justifying fewer quality-inspector checks.
After The Seattle Times published an initial Jan. 20 story on Boeing’s plans to transform its quality-control system, quoting two quality inspectors unhappy about management’s cutting of inspections, additional Boeing inspectors came forward with their own concerns.
One, referring to the failed audit in Everett, said the changes mean that “safety is going to be put at risk in favor of lower costs.”
A second inspector reiterated the claims of inspectors last week that Boeing cutting the number of inspections creates false data about a reduction in defects: “The metrics show improved quality only because the defects aren’t being identified.”
Jon Holden, district president of IAM District 751, said the union, which is negotiating with management about the shift in the quality-assurance process and what will happen to the jobs of the affected inspectors, wants Boeing to validate the changes it is introducing.
“It would only make sense to remove inspections and assign workers to other roles after extensive studies prove by a specific, definitive and consistent standard that there are extremely low defects,” Holden said. “Boeing has not shown us any specific studies or changes to their processes that justify removing inspections.”