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Originally published September 16, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 17, 2006 at 8:13 PM

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Converted 747 superfreighter marks major change in how Boeing produces aircraft

Looking like a giant beluga whale in need of a paint job, a converted 747 superfreighter is scheduled to touch down at Seattle's Boeing...

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Looking like a giant beluga whale in need of a paint job, a converted 747 superfreighter is scheduled to touch down at Seattle's Boeing Field at 8 a.m. today, marking a major step in the company's transformation of how aircraft are produced here.

Boeing executives regard the oversized cargo jet as the linchpin of the company's quest to become more efficient and to reduce the financial risks of launching its newest jet, the 787. The company's workers in the Puget Sound area, however, see the ungainly jet as the harbinger of a radically reduced role for Boeing's local work force.

The plane, making its maiden transoceanic flight to Seattle, was modified in Taiwan. To assemble the 787, a fleet of three such bulging superfreighters will ferry in complete aircraft sections from plants in Italy and Japan, where robots developed for the auto industry will do much of the riveting.

Stan Sorscher, a research analyst with the union representing Boeing engineers, fears that Boeing's plan to shift the manufacturing process to its global partners will gut the Puget Sound region's knowledge base of airplane designers and builders.

"This will be a very significant test case for globalization, for the outsourcing model," predicted Sorscher. "Aside from making the Japanese formidable competitors, we've made ourselves less formidable."

Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief insists not.

The 787 global plan


Using supersized air freighters, Boeing flies in giant prefabricated 787 sections built by its partners around the globe.

From Japan: The 787 wings, made by Mitsubishi, delivered to Everett. Fuji-built midfuselage structure that holds the wings, and a midfuselage section built by Kawasaki, delivered to Charleston, S.C.

From Italy: Large midfuselage sections delivered to Charleston and the horizontal tail delivered to Everett; both made by Alenia.

From Wichita, Kan.: Cockpit and forward fuselage delivered to Everett from the former Boeing Wichita plant, now Spirit Aerosystems.

From Charleston, S.C.: The fully assembled rear and midfuselages, produced by Alenia and Vought, delivered to Everett.

In Everett: Machinists join the incoming pieces and complete the airplane in just three days.

Source: Boeing

"The plan for the 787 ... is likely a model you will see repeated in the future," said Scott Carson in an interview the day he was named to replace Alan Mulally as CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. "But it retains a very significant presence here in Seattle. The heart of our technical capacity ... is here in Seattle and we would expect that to continue."

He doesn't think the superfreighter spells doom for local aerospace work.

"It's the world's ugliest airplane," Carson said in a speech last week, "but it will produce huge value here in this region and jobs around the world."

Boeing designed the Taiwan-built superfreighters so it can import 787 parts in six huge prefabricated sections from its partners — Spirit Aerosystems of Kansas; Vought of Texas; Alenia of Italy; and Mitsubishi, Fuji and Kawasaki of Japan. The Boeing-made vertical tail will arrive separately from Frederickson near Tacoma.

Analysts cite many reasons for Boeing going down this road, including reducing its share of development costs, gaining access to foreign markets and new technology, and weakening the role of its unions.

"For Boeing, it's one way to walk away from its unions," said Joel Johnson, an analyst with the Teal Group. "They have cost structures that are simply too expensive to do that work."

And thanks to highly automated manufacturing processes, even the work forces in Italy and Japan will be relatively small.

Large plastic parts of the 787 airframe will be cured in ovens as single pieces, not meticulously assembled by hand from metal parts. Alenia, which is investing $640 million in the 787, will use robots designed for the automobile industry by Italian supplier Bisiach & Carru to drill holes and insert rivets.

"We'll reduce the touch labor to a minimum," said Antonio Perfetti, Alenia's chief operating officer.

In Everett, only around a thousand Machinists will join the sections together, somewhere between a third and half the number that assemble the 777.

Risks of outsourcing

But the plan poses risks for Boeing. First, it's hard to pull off — the global supply lines could choke.

On the other hand, if it works well it could reduce Boeing's in-house technical capability.

Sorscher, of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), said it could make sense to outsource a well-established manufacturing program, as Airbus is proposing to do by building some A320s in China. But it's a gamble to outsource a new development project that uses boldly innovative processes, he said.

"The risk of something going wrong goes way up," Sorscher said.

In the past, he said, if problems arose at a supplier, Boeing pulled the work back in-house and "piled people and money on it until we crushed the problem."

He cited the experience of developing the Boeing 717. Hyundai of Korea was scheduled to make the wings, but pulled out in 1998. Boeing had to transfer the work in a hurry to its Toronto plant, which is now closed.

Sorscher said that if a major 787 supplier gets in trouble, Boeing's reduced number of engineers may not be able to fill the gap.

The key to Boeing's traditional depth and strength, he said, is its "integrated design and manufacturing community with huge resources" — centered in the Puget Sound region and represented by SPEEA.

If the 787 model takes hold at Boeing, Sorscher fears that jet-making community will be dispersed around the globe, and America's technological know-how along with it.

It will go to places like Nagoya, Japan, where Mitsubishi's ambition is to produce the wings for all future Boeing jets in its new "global center of aircraft wing production."

Boeing Vice President Mike Bair, who heads the 787 program, responded that economic reality compels Boeing's shift.

Maintaining the staff to rescue a struggling supplier if necessary "was basically excess capacity that we were just sitting on and paying for," Bair said. "We can't afford that anymore."

He said the new approach to building jets will ensure Boeing retains its prime role — without losing its proprietary technical skills.

"We haven't given it all away," Bair said.

Boeing, he said, retains a vertical slice of expertise cutting across the entire field of airplane design.

"If one of those partners got in trouble, we'd go help them get out of trouble. Because they have to succeed," Bair said.

He said the technical diversity of the 787 partners brings more access to cutting-edge technology.

One example: The 787's wings will be aerodynamically more efficient because Austrian company FACC is providing composites technology that reduces drag by providing a tight seal when the movable flaps are flush with the wings.

"Currently no other airplane has that," said Walter Stephan, FACC chief executive.

Keeping building blocks

In a speech to Seattle Rotary, Commercial Airplanes Chief Executive Carson, like Bair, insisted Boeing will maintain industry leadership.

"We retain forever the ... fundamental building blocks of the designs of our products," Carson said. "The core of what we do ... is done here. All the intellectual capital remains in this region. The high-value jobs remain in this region."

Most industry analysts agree that globalization is irresistible, though they are not as sanguine as Carson about the local impact.

"I don't think you can stop it," said Clive Medland, senior vice president with aviation consultant SH&E. "The manufacturing companies that are going to succeed are the ones that are going to embrace this.

"It's unfortunate for the engineers and Machinists in Seattle."

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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