SEATTLE — Boeing Co. told its employees Wednesday that “much of the detailed design work” on the new 777X widebody would be done outside Washington state’s Puget Sound area, but the head of the company’s white-collar union cautioned against interpreting the news as a major blow to the local engineering workforce.
Boeing said Wednesday that the design work “will be carried out by Boeing engineering teams in Charleston (S.C.), Huntsville (Ala.), Long Beach (Calif.), Philadelphia and St. Louis.” The company’s design center in Moscow would also contribute, a memo said.
The internal message from Mike Delaney, head of engineering, and Scott Fancher, head of new airplane development, said that “at this time, no decisions have been made about 777X design or build in Puget Sound.”
Ray Goforth, executive director of Boeing’s white-collar union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, described the memo as “inflammatory” and said “the way it was phrased sent some people panicking.”
Detailed design work on Boeing’s previous new airplane program, the 787 Dreamliner, was largely outsourced to major partners including Japanese and Italian suppliers.
This time around, it’s being kept within Boeing.
“I see this as Boeing bringing work back in, as opposed to moving work out of Puget Sound,” said Goforth.
Detailed design is just part of the overall engineering and design effort needed to build the 777X.
Goforth said that 777X design work will consist initially of “a fairly large chunk of core engineering” that will define the overall airplane, especially the size and shape of the new composite wing, the power and size of the new engines, and the impact those new structural elements have on the loads to be borne by the fuselage, the tail and the landing gear.
Then detailed design is done on the different pieces: the innards of the new wing, the nacelle pods that encase the new engines, the insert plug that stretches the fuselage, the landing gear.
But all those different design pieces must be coordinated and integrated to make sure the overall airplane design still works as a whole.
Goforth said that both the initial core engineering and the later integration of the detailed design of all the separate pieces will have to be done by Boeing’s engineers in Washington state.
“The centers of experience for commercial airplane design are here in Puget Sound,” said Goforth. “I think there’s no doubt Puget Sound will play the key integrating role. Boeing just doesn’t have the capacity anywhere else, frankly.”
Some of the detailed design on the 747-8, which, like 777X, was a derivative model rather than an all-new airplane, was done in Boeing’s Moscow design center.
But the overall design and integration work was done in Everett, Wash.
Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel said no negative inference should yet be drawn about the possibilities for 777X engineering work in Washington state.
“It hasn’t been decided yet,” said Birtel. “Not that there will not be Puget Sound involvement.”
Still, the announcement is another aggressive move in the strategy announced by Delaney last spring to distribute commercial airplane engineering work around the company rather than having it concentrated in Washington state.
In an internal message in May, Delaney said Boeing’s Commercial Airplanes unit would establish three domestic engineering design centers - in Washington state, Southern California and South Carolina - as well as one international design center in Moscow, and would also create formal ties to smaller engineering teams in Philadelphia and Huntsville.
“Our goal is to leverage skills from across the Boeing enterprise,” Wednesday’s message said, adding with regard to 777X that “a program of this size requires that we bring together all of the talent that Boeing has to offer.”
Boeing in Washington state employs about 15,700 engineers and 7,500 technical professionals. In southern California, it has some 1,200 engineers and in North Charleston about 1,000 engineers. The Moscow design center employs about 1,200 Russian and Ukrainian engineers.
Wednesday’s message from Fancher and Delaney cites “lessons learned on 787,” an apparent reference to the troubles caused by the 787 outsourcing.
“The announced (777X) structure will allow for an efficient use of resources and enable Boeing to resolve design issues effectively the first time,” the message said.
Goforth said this bolsters his view that the latest moves can be interpreted as Boeing saying, “We’re not going to trust these other companies to do this work again. We’re going to do it, so we can make sure everything is integrated and we don’t end up with these coordination problems we had on the 787.”
That said, clearly the 777X detailed design work is significant work that could have been done in Washington state.
“The question is, how much will be done here, and how much will be done elsewhere within the company,” Goforth said, adding with reference to the wording of the memo that “much” is an “awfully imprecise term for an engineer.”