At a new facility in Everett, Canadian supplier Héroux-Devtek has completed its first set of 777-300ER landing gear for delivery to Boeing, ahead of its contract to make the 777X landing gear.
How many people does it take to finish putting together in Everett the landing gear delivered to Boeing for its large twinjet 777?
The answer is two mechanics. Plus a quality inspector to check their work and a site leader for overall supervision. Total workforce, four.
A small Canadian company in 2013 beat out giant incumbent supplier United Technologies for the contract to build the landing gear for Boeing’s large twinjet 777 and also for the new 777X.
Héroux-Devtek, headquartered in Longueuil, Quebec, makes the parts in various Canadian plants, assembles them in Strongsville, Ohio, and finishes them in a new facility north of Boeing’s Everett assembly plant.
On Monday, Héroux-Devtek delivers to Boeing its first assembled landing gear set, consisting of two six-wheeled main landing gear “trucks” and the two-wheel nose gear.
In the 20,000-square-foot Everett facility, the mechanics connect the single piece of forged titanium called the truck beam — the axles for the wheels are threaded through it — to the vertical legs of the landing gear, each of which is a pair of steel telescoping cylinders called shock struts.
Then they install the carbon brakes and the massive 52-inch-diameter tires.
In the process, they “dress” the gear with intricate bundles of electrical wiring and sensors.
Company executives will celebrate the achievement in a news conference Tuesday at the Farnborough Air Show.
A main landing-gear truck weighs 7.5 tons and, with the telescoping legs compressed, stands 14 foot 9 inches tall.
The complete set has to support the weight of a full 777 airplane, which maxes out at an easy-to-remember 777,000 pounds, or almost 390 tons.
That first ship set of landing gear was entirely put together by employees Leonel Hernandez and Todd Brokaw. Quality inspector Richard Peters and site leader Justin Smith complete the workforce.
This tiny team has lots of experience working on 777 landing gear.
Smith worked at various companies supplying parts of the 777 gear. The others all previously worked at the United Technologies landing-gear facility down the road.
The four started last December in an empty leased space — with 40-foot-high ceilings and a reinforced concrete floor to hold the weight — and set up their workshop for maximum efficiency.
“It was a great opportunity for all four of us to be at a startup and do something to this level,” Smith said.
That opportunity arose in 2013, when Boeing’s then-Chief Executive Jim McNerney warned that suppliers who didn’t play ball would be put on a “no-fly list.”
So when United Technologies refused the price cuts Boeing demanded as part of its push to lower costs, it was knocked out as 777 landing-gear supplier.
Héroux-Devtek had previously made only parts for landing gear and some smaller complete gears for military and business jets.
The Canadian government’s Industrial Regional Benefits program helped it win the Boeing contract to build, for the first time, something tremendously bigger. That federal program requires arms suppliers like Boeing to make investments in Canada equal in value to any defense and security contracts awarded. Canada is currently considering buying F/A-18 jet fighters from Boeing.
For now, United Technologies will continue to supply most of the 777 landing gear as Héroux-Devtek slowly and carefully ramps up.
The Canadian firm will make just six more ship sets this year.
“This is such a critical piece of the airplane, you can’t afford to have any issues,” said Smith.
Boeing has been monitoring the work every step of the way. After it flight-tests that first set of gear, the equipment will be taken off the plane, torn apart and examined in minute detail.
But next year Héroux-Devtek should be making most of the 777 gear, and in early 2018 will take over the work completely from United Technologies — which will continue to make the landing gear for the 737, 747 and 767 jets.
(French supplier Messier-Dowty, now called Safran Landing Systems, supplies the landing gear for the 787 Dreamliner.)
Boeing is relying on Héroux-Devtek to move smoothly from its initial experience of building the gear for the current 777-300ER passenger jet and the 777F freighter models to doing the same for its forthcoming new 777X version.
The landing gear for the new bigger jet will have a few significant differences, Smith said.
The truck beam will be forged from a different titanium alloy. And a couple of components at the top of today’s landing gear for the 777X will be machined as a single piece.
The first 777X will be assembled in 2018 and flown the following year. Before then, Héroux-Devtek needs to have its manufacturing process ironed out, perfected and ramped up.
Héroux-Devtek has a total workforce of about 1,400, with about 240 employees in the U.S. Between 75 and 100 people are dedicated to the 777 program.
Smith said that at peak production, the Everett workforce will swell to … just 10 people.
Boeing certainly has bought the efficiency its supply-chain managers demanded.