Boeing secretly testing new automation for 777X



SEATTLE — At a secret facility in Anacortes, more than 40 miles north of Boeing’s widebody-jet plant in Everett, a small group of engineers next month will begin testing advanced automation methods for building the soon-to-be-launched 777X jet.

The hush-hush project reveals Boeing intends to dramatically change the way the plane’s metal hull is built, reducing manual labor on that task while ramping up the overall production rate.

“We’re going to build the fuselage differently than we do now,” said a senior Boeing engineer familiar with details of the plan. “We’re going to introduce a whole lot of automation.”

Meanwhile, in a nerve-wracking process that could either boost or bust future manufacturing in the Puget Sound region, Boeing is still weighing various plans for where to put 777X manufacturing — including Everett, alternative company facilities and non-Boeing sites.

One option being weighed: Do everything in Everett.

Another: Outsource to Japan the fabrication of the fuselage sections, now done in Everett.

Boeing spokesman Mike Tull declined to discuss what’s going on inside the Anacortes facility. Regarding location of 777X manufacturing, he cautioned that “we really are studying all of our options, and no decisions have been made yet.”

The 777X, a major update to Boeing’s successful, large widebody twin jet, features composite plastic wings and new fuel-efficient engines but retains the 777’s aluminum fuselage. It’s due to enter service by the end of the decade.

The metal fuselage panels today are made in Japan, then shipped to Everett. A person with knowledge of discussions between Boeing and Mitsubishi said the two companies have studied the possibility of the 777X fuselage sections being built in Japan.

However, that outcome may be a long shot for the Japanese. The senior Boeing engineer said the company would be loath to outsource the innovation that’s brewing in Anacortes.

“There is a competition to win the business,” the senior engineer said, but “the Everett team thinks it has a plan that will be successful.”

“We have room for the wing. We have room for the (fuselage) structures. We have room for the whole thing,” the engineer added. “We’ve got a kick-ass plan.”

That detailed plan includes converting the Everett assembly bay that’s now partly used as an extra “surge line” for the 787 Dreamliner into a 777X assembly line, side by side with the existing 777 line.

Such an outcome, including manufacturing of the composite-plastic wing, could more than compensate Everett for any jobs lost to automation.

Boeing is expected to formally launch the 777X program this fall, which will trigger a huge development program employing thousands of engineers in Everett.

More than 3,000 Boeing employees now work directly on the 777 or support its production. Retaining that work as Boeing transitions to the 777X is vital to the region’s economy.

Gov. Jay Inslee has said he’ll make it a priority to streamline regulatory procedures and permitting for any development Boeing requires, and his aerospace office is expected later this year to come up with further training and infrastructure incentives.

The Anacortes project may open up a need for training in new automation processes.

Boeing has leased 18,000 square feet inside a former boat-manufacturing facility on the waterfront at Fidalgo Bay for the 16-month development and test program.

Its permit application to the Northwest Clean Air Agency describes the Anacortes operation as a “temporary project” that will run from next month through the end of 2014, and “will involve the assembly of a non-production aft aircraft fuselage and a shorter test fuselage section.”

“The project investigates the use of new automation technologies in the assembly of aircraft fuselages,” the application states. “The project is being conducted by our Engineering and Research & Technology groups and the parts that will be made in Anacortes will not be used for production purposes.”