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Originally published March 10, 2011 at 9:58 PM | Page modified March 11, 2011 at 6:06 PM

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Boeing considers 'supersite' of plants for new jet

A Boeing team working on the next new airplane after the 787 Dreamliner is thinking big and preparing to make choices with profound implications for Washington state.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

A Boeing team working on the next new airplane after the 787 Dreamliner is thinking big and preparing to make choices with profound implications for Washington state.

The new jet family will skew larger than the single-aisle 737s, the Renton-built planes Boeing intends to keep on making at least five years after the new jets enter service, said Mike Bair, the Boeing vice president leading work on the program.

Crucially, the new plane's supply chain will be radically different from the Dreamliner's — most likely a cluster of major supplier plants near Boeing's final-assembly site.

Such a supersite would transform the manufacturing landscape of this state — or another one, if Boeing chooses to go elsewhere.

Boeing hasn't made a firm decision yet to go ahead. Key decisions are still hanging, such as the size of the jets and the material they'll be made from.

If it goes ahead, Bair said in an interview, Boeing intends to launch the plane around 2014 and deliver it at the end of the decade, building a powerful industrial infrastructure capable of rolling out as many as 60 of the jets a month.

The notion of a manufacturing supersite is driven by Boeing's determination to avoid the overextended global supply chain that caused such trouble for the Dreamliner, and also by the demands of producing a smaller airplane at a very high rate.

Supplier partners would build wings, fuselage and other parts of the airframe near the final-assembly line. That could mean, for example, a major Mitsubishi facility making carbon-fiber composite wings in Washington state — or maybe in South Carolina.

"We'd hope that our partners would be willing to participate that way," said Bair.

Though planning for the new plane is far from complete, Bair is speaking out to assure airlines and others that Boeing isn't standing still while rival Airbus puts new, more efficient engines on its competing A320 single-aisle jets.

The so-called A320neo, to be delivered in 2016, has already won some sales momentum for Airbus. Leading aircraft lessor ILFC this week ordered 100 of the re-engined jets.

Nicole Piasecki, vice president in charge of strategy at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, asserted in a separate interview that Boeing can trump Airbus with this new airplane family, in a range of sizes centered near 200 passengers.

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"The A320neo will be obsolete by the time we come into the market with something that is at least twice as good in terms of fuel efficiency," Piasecki said.

Not at 737 plant

The single-aisle 737 plant in Renton isn't a good candidate for assembling the new plane, because for years both planes will likely be in production at the same time, Bair said. Piasecki said 737 production will continue at least through 2026.

But the wide-body jet plant in Everett is a possibility if the final-assembly site and potentially the supplier factories around it are to be in Washington, he said.

"You could envision Everett," Bair said. But, he added, "You could envision putting new facilities up somewhere else."

Bair is the executive who headed the Dreamliner program in its initial years. Under his leadership, Boeing created, designed and marketed an airplane concept that airlines rushed to order in record numbers.

But the supply chain broke down early and often. After the initial delays hit the program in 2007, Bair was shunted aside.

"I have the scars to prove that we made mistakes," Bair said. "On the 787, we tried to push the boundaries and to learn from pushing the boundaries. And we did."

His job now is to create another winning design concept but also to use the Dreamliner's painful lessons to create a production system that works from the get-go.

"I don't have any problem with making a mistake," Bair said. "There's a real issue if you make the same mistake twice."

The first critical decision for Boeing is how big the plane will be.

Piasecki said three configurations are being seriously studied: two single-aisle arrangements and a wider, twin-aisle model.

After the size, the next big question is the material used to build it. Should Boeing make the plane out of carbon-fiber composite plastic, like the Dreamliner, or out of new aluminum alloys?

Bair said a composite-plastic airplane, like the Dreamliner, will require expensive new investments for suppliers now fabricating parts for the metal 737.

"All those people would have to retool for composites," he said. "If it ends up being mostly composites, you need a completely different infrastructure."

The high production rate Boeing envisions is also a factor.

Composite structures are made by robotic machines laying down strips of carbon fiber tape onto molds, then baking them to hardness in high-pressure ovens.

"If you can lay the tape down twice as fast, you need half as many" molds and tape-laying machines, said Bair.

That would change the comparative economics of composites and aluminum.

Faster production also would require a shorter supply chain. Big wing and fuselage sections for 60 planes a month couldn't be delivered far across the globe the way they are for the much slower-paced Dreamliner production line.

On the smaller 737, Spirit Aerosystems of Wichita, Kan., delivers complete fuselages to Renton via rail. But even that might not work if the new airplane is a wider twin-aisle.

For that reason, said Piasecki, the supersite concept is being closely studied by Ray Conner, Boeing vice president of supply-chain management.

Bair, who first raised that idea publicly in a 2007 speech, said such a cluster is "clearly a possibility."

"No. 1 candidate"

John Monroe, a former Boeing executive who now heads the Snohomish County Economic Development Council, believes that Boeing's engineering work force makes Washington the "No. 1 candidate" to win this enormous industrial prize.

"That's a lot of work," said Monroe. "That's our future."

Rogers Weed, director of the state Department of Commerce, said the state's advantage might not be as great if the plane is composite rather than aluminum. Boeing now fabricates composite 787 fuselages in South Carolina.

Weed warned that Washington will have to compete against other potential locations and needs to identify the sites here that would work.

"We know we have to earn the business," Weed said.

Monroe recalled that the original development of the 787's composite wing and fuselage manufacturing technology was done at Boeing's Seattle research center.

And he identified a key advantage Washington has over South Carolina or anywhere else: To iron out problems on a startup jet line, it should be close to the brains that designed the airplane. And those engineering brains are here.

"You can't just start up a whole engineering team 3,000 miles from Seattle," Monroe said. "You can't make all new hires as they did for production workers in Charleston."

Monroe said the state should look at sites north of Everett, around Marysville and Arlington, where suppliers could find cheap land within a half-hour's drive of an assembly site in Everett.

As for what the state should do to secure the prize, Monroe said there's no need for a big financial package like the one the state gave Boeing in 2003 to win the Dreamliner assembly site.

The state has moved to improve its business climate to Boeing's requirements and company executives recently have come to appreciate the talented work force here, he said.

He sees only one hurdle to clear: the Boeing contract negotiations with the International Association of Machinists (IAM) union, scheduled for 2012.

"Labor and management both have to figure out a way to not have a strike in 2012," Monroe said. "If that goes south, we move from being the No. 1 candidate to somewhere far down the list."

Union leader optimistic

IAM District 751 President Tom Wroblewski said he's optimistic about 2012 because in the past year the company has publicly acknowledged the merits of its local work force, most recently in its remake of the 767 assembly line in Everett that increased efficiency and helped win the huge Air Force tanker contract.

"The 767 tanker victory sets a good foundation for the future," Wroblewski said. "There's no reason we can't build on this as we head into negotiations.

"We want to make sure this is the premier aerospace cluster of the United States," Wroblewski added. "That's our goal."

Bair cautioned that Boeing won't look at locations for final assembly until after it decides on size and material for the new airplane.

And Boeing won't announce any irrevocable decision about that airplane at the Paris Air Show in June, despite some industry expectations.

He recalled the superfast jet Boeing touted in 2001, then scrapped in 2002.

"A decision isn't a firm decision until we get board approval and launch the program with a customer and get a contract," Bair said. "Remember, we were pretty firm on the Sonic Cruiser, and changed our mind."

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

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