MIAMI — Welcome to part four of our multi-part epoch on the fascinating history of the Boeing Everett plant. We will be rolling the series out over the next month, so sit back, grab a glass of your favorite beverage, and enjoy the read.
Boeing Dreams Big
As the 2000s dawned, Boeing was about to embark on perhaps its biggest opportunity and challenge since the Boeing 747. Beyond the well-established pushing-the-envelope technical advances promised by the ultra-fuel efficient, composite based 787 Dreamliner, Boeing decided to up-end the traditional assembly process that had served the industry since it began. Boeing would sub-contract out most major component assembly, even more financial risk, and most significantly actual key design to a global network of sub-contractors.
The Japanese, who played a key role in the 767 and 777 programs, were charged with co-designing and constructing up to 38% of the aircraft, including the wings (compared to 5% on a 747). They also shouldered the most significant financial risk in the program, aside from Boeing. Perhaps not coincidentally, Japanese carrier ANA would become the launch customer, while JAL would not be far behind. The overall goal of the new strategy was to result in a leaner, simpler assembly line and lower inventory. In total it would aim to reduce final assembly time by up to 75% – to just 3 days. This in turn would lower the cost of the aircraft and raise profit margins. The famous, but ungainly, Dreamlifters (modified 747s) would shuttle the components from subcontractors around the world to Everett.
It was with those lofty goals that the 787 program officially was launched on April 26, 2004 when announced a firm order for 50 aircraft, thus becoming the program’s launch customer. With relations between Boeing and the unions still strained, Boeing considered a number of locations. In a case of history repeating itself, Boeing announced on December 16, 2003, that the 787 would be assembled at Everett. The state of Washington had to guarantee a $3.2 billion tax-break package over 20 years as well as commit $15.5 million to the building of a new barge dock at Mukilteo. By the end of 2004, there were already 237 orders and commitments for the 787 making it the fastest selling jetliner ever. As of July 2013, there were 931 orders and 73 deliveries.
Reinventing The Legend
Less than two years later, on November 15, 2005, the company would launch the 747-8: the third generation of the jet that started it all at Everett. The new 747-8 would be stretched to become the longest airliner in the world. This highly advanced and fuel efficient Jumbo would feature the most advanced wing and engine combination in aviation. Production of the 747-8F began in August 2008.The passenger version, the 747-8 Intercontinental, attracted far fewer orders than its cargo-based sibling, and for the first time in a Boeing commercial program a cargo plane would enter service before the passenger version. Lufthansa made the first order for the airplane, followed by a handful of orders from Arik Air, Air China, Korean Air, and a few VIP frames over the next few years.
The first flight of either was well behind schedule, flying for the first time on February 8, 2010 and entering service with Cargolux on October 12, 2011. The first passenger version, The Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental, made its first flight in March of 2011, entering commercial service on June 1, 2012.
With the delays, the smaller order book was actually a mixed blessing. The 747-8 production rate peaked at two aircraft per month and was lowered to 1.75 per month in July 2013 due to decreasing demand, primarily in the freighter market. As of the end of July 2013, there had been 52 delivered and 107 orders. With the aircraft effectively relegated to niche status it would lessen any long-term effect the company’s credibility and financial performance.
Dreams Aren’t Always Sweet
That was the job of the 747’s high profile little brother, the 787. Everett and Boeing would face their most severe crisis in aviation production since the 747 fiasco 40 years before. With an initial May 2008 entry-into-service, there was no time to waste. Production began in late 2006, final assembly of the first 787 in May 2007, and finally the celebrated roll out on July 8, 2007 (7/8/7). The event was epically festive and nothing like the commercial aviation world has seen before. Orders actually peaked at 369 airframes that year. Not many knew at the time, but when the first 787, ZA001, rolled out of Everett that warm summer’s day it was not the customary months away from its first flight: it was years away. At the time there was word that a fastener shortage, similar to the one plaguing the Airbus A380, was also a bugaboo in the 787’s production plans. But the problems ran much, much deeper than that.
Boeing’s goal was to transform Everett’s 787 line into a mere assembly plant, bolting together virtually all the sub-assemblies designed and produced elsewhere as though they were pieces of an airplane model kit. Yet issues emerged from the get go. Unlike with the 777 that came together relatively smoothly even using the pioneering CAD, some of the 787 components made by far-flung suppliers didn’t fit together. Many subcontractors couldn’t meet their output quotas, creating huge supply chain logjams when critical parts weren’t available in the necessary sequence.
This resulted in rework after rework, redesign after redesign. The result manifested itself in long delays, angry customers, overweight aircraft, and financial pain on everyone’s part (program costs reportedly ballooned to $33 billion). Reportedly, the first five aircraft have so many engineering alterations and weight issues that they will never be sold to airline customers. In fact the first aircraft has already been flown into storage in Mojave, CA.
Adding insult to injury, 27,000 of Boeing’s unionized machinists went on strike in September 2008, the third time labor had forced a shutdown in 13 years. The strike lasted for eight weeks, delaying the new 747-8 and 787 programs even further. Considered the most expensive strike in U.S. history, it ultimately cost the company $2 billion in profits that year alone according to a report in The Seattle Times.
More than two years after it was supposed to fly, the Dreamliner finally flew for the first time on December 15, 2009. Even with marginal weather, the 787 performed well on its first flight. It would still be almost another two years until the first 787 was delivered on September 25, 2011 and finally entering service on October 26, 2011 – somethree years behind schedule. Boeing announced afterfive years that the production rate would achieve 2.5 aircraft per month at Everett. At this rate, the order book would take decades to clear.
Meanwhile, some 787s were being sent off-site to facilities in locations such as San Antonio for retrofitting, while many 787s were being rolled out from the Everett Plant only partially completed. The scene of taped-up, partially completed, engineless 787s was reminiscent of the 747 maladies of the early 1970s. Paine Field literally became a 787 parking lot, especially as deliveries ceased after 50 airframes, because of the January – April 2013 worldwide grounding of the type.
Big Challenges Need Radical Solutions
With production deadlines of its hot selling but troubled 787 far behind schedule and production rates well under projections, Boeing needed to do more than ramp up the pulsing 787 final assembly line to get to the 2013 levels of ten aircraft per month. As mentioned before, Boeing was having some severe problems with some of its suppliers. Using the adage, “if you can’t fix ‘em, then buy ‘em”, Boeing did just that by purchasing the North Charleston factory that assembled and installed systems for aft (rear) fuselage sections of the 787, and joins and integrates mid body fuselage sections from the joint-venture of Vought Aircraft Industries and the Alenia’s portion of Global Aeronautica. Despite the protest of the unions in Seattle (namely the IAM) and government officials in Washington State, the company bought the entire 240 acre-site.
Check in next week for the thrilling conclusion to the series as we learn how the rest of the 787 program panned out and take a look at Everett’s latest challenge: landing the crucial 777X.