EVERETT – As the Boeing 777-X approaches production, the 777’s production rate is slowing to 5 airframes per month in August, and then dwindling to 3.5 per month in 2018.
The first 777X isn’t due to begin final assembly in 2018, in advance of a 2019 first flight and a 2020 entry into service. As of May 31st, Boeing reports a backlog of 90 777-300 ERs and 30 777 Freighters against an order of 306 777Xs.
Boeing is continuing its aggressive sales campaigns on the current generation 777 to bridge the production gap before the 777X comes online, but with the worldwide wide-body glut and only nine new 777 orders secured this year, bridging the gap doesn’t look especially promising.
Under the guise of timing is everything, Boeing is seizing on this production lull to reinvent much of the existing 777 production process that will be adopted to the 777X, as the carrier begins fabrication operations at its newly opened Composite Wing Center and creates a temporary surge production line for the next generation 777X.
In a pre-Paris Airshow briefing, Airways was invited to tour the new and evolving production facilities. The Composite Wing Center, covering 27 acres, is designed to produce the world’s largest composite wings.
It will contain three of the world’s largest autoclaves – each big enough to fit two 737 fuselages inside. The first installed autoclave is already “baking” components.
Pre-production is already underway, despite the appearance of scant activity in the capacious facility. This is intentional as Boeing is matching CapEx purchasing of tooling and labor to meet demand for the wings.
The CWC, however, is designed to meet the demand of composite wing-sets for 8.3/aircraft per month, which is where the 777 final assembly line production peaked.
Progress is clearly underway: Two pre-production articles are being loaded into fabrication, including building parts for the right-hand practice box. Wing spar fabrication, the largest composite spar ever built at 105’ in length, is underway for the initial static test frame 777X.
Progress is being made with drilling and fastening of wing ribs, stiffeners, and fasteners.
Boeing is in-sourcing most 777X wing production at its $1 billion USD CWC, with the vast majority of the wing being produced in Everett. However, not everything is produced on-site. Boeing St. Louis has already begun assembly of the first wing leading edge and folding wing-tips.
As Boeing has successfully done with the 737 MAX, and by necessity activated for the 787, the initial final assembly of the first 777Xs will be produced on what the acronym fond company is calling its L-RIP, Low Rate Initial Production Line.
This separate temporary production surge line is essentially a test-bed and early learning laboratory for the new 777X, where new production processes are created, tested, and adopted without interfering with the current U-shaped 777 FAL.
The first 4 aircraft involved in the test program along with the static airframe and likely additional 10-20 production models will be built on this line in building 40-23, formerly occupied by the 787 rework and surge line and at one time used for the 747.
The L-RIP will be inaugurated with an initial practice box that will be loaded later this year. This is noteworthy, as Boeing reports that 70 percent of the 777X design is locked.
Unlike the permanent and current 777 FAL, the L-RIP won’t flow as a moving line. Boeing isn’t providing a timeline or flow rate for how long the L-RIP will operate and when 777Xs will transition over to the existing 777 FAL.
But as with the 737MAX, the end of line 777s and next generation 777X will be built on the same line for some time to come. While the new 777Xs and 777 Classics overlap on the same line, Boeing will insert production blanks on the existing 777 Classic FAL to keep flow consistent.
Boeing claims the new 777X production system is optimized around safety, which improves morale and efficiency; thus improving the bottom line.
Since our last visit two years ago to the 777 FAL, the changes are indeed dramatic. The overhauls to sections of the current U-shaped final assembly line of the 777 are the most significant improvements to the line since it transitioned to a moving line in 2006. The factory floor of building 40-27 is much less cluttered as the current line readies for the 777X.
Due to the 236’ wingspan, 36’ longer than that of the 777-300ER, and different dihedral and sweep, the 777X wings won’t fit and will be completed in horizontal fashion on the horizontal build line. This allows for an easier mechanic and automation access. The new tooling will be loaded with its first right-hand practice box in a few months.
Already operating is the FAUB: Fuselage Automated Upright Build. This is a significant change in the fabrication of the fuselage barrels with forwarding, mid-body, and aft fuselage panels being riveted on the ribs by robots.
The key drivers for this upgrade are quality, safety, and riveting. The barrels are already of higher quality, tighter tolerance, and fitting together better. These are replacing FAJ, Fixed Assembly Floor Jigs, which have been a staple for decades.
The new FAUB is already at full rate and is now a pulsing line. The process is 30 percent more automated than before with the full production rate achieved just after 9 months.
A mechanic on the floor remarked he isn’t worried about robots taking his job, but instead is happy that he has learned a new skill working with the two robots and that he won’t “blow his shoulder out.” He says the reduction in physical impact to his body is noticeable.
The all-critical wing/body join positions on the Final Assembly Line are also getting a makeover. Though safety and flow reduction of 20% are key drivers, Boeing has no choice but to reinvent this process due to the sheer size of the new 777X wings – the old jigs can’t accommodate this.
In a major shift, the cranes are no longer used in this automated wing/body join, the entire system is a pulse line. The transformation is already underway with the first unit already in operation, the second online later in 2017, and the third in 2017.
As for 777X signature folding wingtips, they will be tested in the service ready wing area before wing/body join and then in final position when the aircraft is powered up for the first time.