MIAMI — Welcome to part three 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.
The next major milestone came when Everett’s original product, the Boeing 747, was nearly completely redesigned and designated the Dash 400. The 747-400 was launched in 1985 with final assembly commencing in September 1987. In a departure from the 747 Classic, more than 50% of the Dash 400’s components were produced by sub-contractors.
The first Boeing 747-400 was rolled out on January 26, 1988, the same day as the first Boeing 737-400 rolled out in Renton. Launch customer Northwest Airlines took its first delivery on January 26, 1989 entering service a month later between Phoenix and Minneapolis/St. Paul. The 747-400 accumulated 694 orders by the time deliveries ended in 2009 to make way for the 747-8.
After the exuberance of the 1980s, clouds were forming on the horizon. On October 5,1989 57,000 machinists, represented by the IAM, walked off their jobs halting production on all Boeing jets for 48 days. This damaging event set an adversarial course between company management and labor.
On the aircraft front, production on the original Boeing 747 “Classics” ended in 1991 with the last 747-200 delivery. Though completed in 1986, the two VC-25s, heavily modified 747-200Bs serving as Air Force One, weren’t delivered until 1990.
Meanwhile the Airbus A300 and the combined sales of the DC-10 and L1011 stole orders from Boeing. On the drawing board were longer range and higher capacity aircraft: The McDonnell Douglas MD-11 and Airbus A330 / 340. Boeing had to answer with its own product that would leapfrog its Long Beach and Toulouse competitors. There was a major hole in Boeing’s portfolio between those aircraft and the much larger 747. Boeing would respond with what became known as “The 21st Century Jet”.
The Magnificent 7
In pitching what became the 777 to the airlines, Boeing proposed a re-engined, stretched, and winglet laden 767 called the 767-X. But the program drew tepid response from its customers. By 1988 Boeing realized that a clean sheet twin-jet would be mandatory if it were to have a fighting chance in the marketplace. On December 8, 1989 Boeing began officially marketing the 777 to customers.
As is well known, the 777’s design was different than previous efforts as eight of the world’s major airlines would be invited to participate in the design process. The “Working Together” group, initially known as “The Gang of 8”, met at Everett in March 1990 and collaborated on specifications which would lead to the final 777 design. The “Gang of 8” ultimately became the “Gang of 4” who would lead the 777 design from the customer side: United, ANA, British Airways, and Japan Airlines. The “Magnificent 7” would become the first commercial airliner to be designed entirely using CAD (Computer Aided Design). On October 14, 1990 United Airlines became the 777’s launch customer with an order for 34 Pratt & Whitney powered airframes valued at $11 billion.
To accommodate production of this new groundbreaking airliner Boeing more than doubled the initial size of the Everett factory to 472,370,319 cubic feet at the cost of nearly $1.5 billion to provide space for two new assembly bays. This was a substantially larger expansion then the 1980 expansion for the 767 program.
Along with CAD, new production methods were developed, including a barrel turning machine that could rotate fuselage subassemblies 180 degrees, giving workers access to upper body sections. Foreign sub-contractors particularly from Japan not only increased international component content to unprecedented levels, but became financial stakeholders as well by contributing up to 20% of the risk. Total investment in the program was estimated at over $4 billion from Boeing, with an additional $2 billion from supplier stakeholders.
On September 28, 1992 6,500 employees of the 777 design team began the move from Renton to Everett. Major assembly of the first 777 began on January 4, 1993. On May 13, 1993 the first major body section from Japan arrived, with the first body section join on December 15, 1993. On April 9, 1994, the first 777, line number WA001 “Working Together”, was rolled out in a splashy series of 15 ceremonies held during the day to accommodate the 100,000 invited guests.
The first test flight took place on June 12, 1994, under the command of chief test pilot John E. Cashman. Boeing delivered the first 777 to United Airlines on May 15, 1995. Being the first twin jet certified at ETOPS 180 at delivery, United inaugurated the first commercial flight on June 7, 1995 from London Heathrow to Washington D.C. Dulles with Denver-Chicago O’Hare following later that day.
The program production rate began at three 777s per month in the beginning increasing to four per month in 1996. Still the era at Everett was far from perfect with escalating poisonous relations between the company and management. In 1995, Boeing endured a 69-day strike that cost the company some $2.5 billion over the next few years due to production issues and poor moraleYet the 777 production process and entry into service was one of the smoothest in aviation history. The program continued to prosper, becoming a cash cow for Boeing. Subsequent models included the 777-200ER (EIS “entry-in-service” 1997), 777-200LR (EIS 2006) 777-300 (EIS 1998), 777-300ER (EIS 2004), the 777-F Freighter (EIS 2009), and likely the upcoming 777-X (projected EIS 2019).
Ramping Up 777 Supply to Meet Demand
The Boeing 777’s popularity went from strength-to-strength. On November 21, 2004 just 10 years after its roll out, Boeing delivered its 500th Triple Seven, an Air France 77W. With the pace of orders quickening, Boeing needed supply to catch up with demand. For inspiration, they looked south to Renton, where the 737s moving assembly line began in 2002. The engineers also looked east to Japan adapting from the automotive industry: Lean manufacturing methods. These allow a continuously moving assembly line slowly moving the airframe from one assembly team to the next. The Lean technique keeps production moving at a steady pace, allowing employees to gauge production status at a glance and reducing the amount of work-in-process inventory at the same time.
A moving assembly line for a wide-body jet had never been attempted before but an undaunted Boeing opened it on November 8, 2006 at Everett. Initially the moving assembly line was used only during final assembly of the airplane, moving it at a steady pace of 1.6 inches per minute during production. To make the 777 assembly line move during final assembly, Boeing used a tug that attaches around the front landing gear of the airplane and pulls it forward. The tug has an optical sensor that follows a white line along the floor. In 2007, completed a continuous, one-bay moving assembly line for the 777, which will included systems installation, final body join and final assembly for the airplane. The company claims this to be the most extensive moving production line used to build a commercial airplane. Boeing claims that since the line was introduced, factory unit hours decreased 34% while build time reduced by 24%.
With the 777 order book bulging, Boeing needed to accelerate the Everett line into an even higher gear. During three periods in the late 1990s and mid 2000s, production had jumped to seven 777s per month, but Boeing decided that number had to be higher and economically sustainable. In January 2010 the company implemented the “U-shaped” production line, becoming the largest integrated moving line in the world. According to Boeing “In systems installation and final body join, the fuselage sections are moved on crawlers that follow a metal strip in the factory floor. In final assembly, the airplane is pulled by a super tug that fits around the airplane’s front landing gear. The tug has a sensor that follows a metal strip in the floor. The 777 u-shaped production line moves at a rate of about 1.8 inches (4.6 cm) per minute.”
Other new manufacturing innovations included flex-track drilling in the body and wing panels, automated floor drilling and wings painting equipment. On January 10, 2013 Boeing reached its goal by rolling out the first 777 to be built at the new record rate of 8.3 aircraft per month, or 100 per year. A Korean Air 777 Freighter was the first to take the build time from 49 down to 48 days.
There is still room for improvement however. A time-consuming part in the existing 777 manufacturing process is the tooling that holds the Japanese-built curved aluminum panels in position as they are fastened together into completed fuselage barrels. These pieces must align perfectly so the lower lobe of each fuselage section is assembled first upside down. Once completed, it’s lifted by crane onto a giant turning tool that flips it right side up. Then it must be moved by crane again for building the upper part of the fuselage.
As of May 2013 1,452 had been ordered with 1,105 delivered making it the most prolific twin-aisle, twin jet airliner ever built. The 777 is only surpassed by the 747 in terms of sheer completed deliveries but with the 747s nearly static order book totaling 1,528 and its prospects darkening it’s only a short matter of time before the 777 takes over the number one position.
In many ways, these were indeed jubilant years for Everett. Beyond what was happening on the factory floor, the new Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Tour complex opened in 2005, replacing an older facility built in the early 1980s. In 2007, Boeing welcomed the 3,000,000th visitor to the factory. From 2005 to 2009, the Everett plant implemented the Future Factory project to create new, more open and employee-friendly work areas in the main factory building.
About 4,000 people moved into 600,000 square feet of renovated space in five office towers located around the site. Renovations included adding Tully’s Coffee cafes (A Seattle favorite), new and upgraded cafeterias, and 35 skylights contributing to energy efficiency. In 2006, the Everett Delivery Center was remodeled with a new second-story observation deck overlooking the flight line, new customer offices, conference rooms and common areas, the obligatory Tully’s Coffee, and renovated crew shelters on the flight line. It would be replaced in 2013 by an entirely new complex.