Expertise, economics make Everett strong bet for future 777 line
Washington state has a shot at a tantalizing bonus prize that could be even more important for the region's aerospace future: a facility to manufacture the 777X's huge, carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic composite wings — the biggest such wings ever made.
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
To build its major upgrade to the blockbuster 777 widebody jet, Boeing is considering how to squeeze additional manufacturing work into its busy Everett site, perhaps even finding room for an additional assembly line.
"Boeing is actively looking at multiple scenarios for expanding the Everett site to accommodate the building of the new jet," said a veteran company insider with knowledge of the internal discussions.
The expected growth from the planned 777X should add hundreds of production jobs.
Yet Washington state has a shot at a tantalizing bonus prize that could be even more important for the region's aerospace future: a facility to manufacture the 777X's huge, carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic composite wings — the biggest such wings ever made.
An Everett 777X wing plant — where local workers would build the most important part of the plane out of the material likely to be standard on future models — would fill a gaping hole left when Boeing outsourced the 787 Dreamliner wing.
"To get the new technology and start building the wings of the future, that would be a giant, giant win for Washington state," said Mark Blondin, national aerospace coordinator with the International Association of Machinists (IAM) union.
A manager at Mitsubishi said its 787 wing plant in Nagoya, Japan, employs about 1,000 people.
Nothing is certain about the 777X. The concept Boeing executives are marketing to airlines includes a metal fuselage with composite wings and tail, but the company says it hasn't made any decisions on the jet's design or the manufacturing plan.
However, Boeing almost certainly will assemble the 777X in Everett. Costs would be prohibitive to duplicate elsewhere the 777 supply chain and workforce.
And insiders say Boeing is likely to build the wing in-house.
While other locations will be considered, the difficulty of transporting such long wings to Everett could give the state an edge.
In the next few years, designing the 777X will sustain thousands of engineering jobs in Everett.
On the production side, the current boom already has the main assembly plant — the largest building by volume in the world — "busting at the seams," as the company insider put it.
Options for expansion include moving work around within the existing plant, extending an assembly bay, or setting up shop elsewhere around Paine Field, perhaps in a large hangar Boeing intends to buy.
The company must decide on a basic manufacturing plan relatively soon. Commercial Airplanes CEO Jim Albaugh said he hopes to present his 777X proposal to the Boeing board by year-end.
Star of the fleet
The 777 is Boeing's star airliner, with no Airbus competition in its category.
Last year, Boeing sold 200 of them, worth nearly $33 billion after standard discounts. The 1,000th jet in the series was delivered last month.
With its 777X plan — encompassing 777-8X and 777-9X sub-models — Boeing intends to head off a potential threat to that lucrative franchise from an upcoming Airbus jet, the all-composite A350-1000.
Boeing likely will begin building the new jet in 2017, targeting first delivery in 2019.
A fleet planner for a major international airline, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said new wings and new engines make the 777X "halfway to a new plane."
Boeing will have to invest several billion dollars. If it succeeds, the 777 family could become the first widebody to reach 2,000 deliveries.
On the Friday before Easter, Albaugh shifted his weekly executive review meeting to Everett from its usual venue at the Longacres headquarters building in Renton.
The group met in a conference room overlooking the 777 final-assembly bay, signifying the focus for the day: how to reconfigure the manufacturing space so Boeing can introduce the new 777X model without slowing production of the current 777 cash cow.
Boeing conceivably could create a single expanded Everett production line capable of assembling both current 777 models and 777X models.
But both the veteran Boeing insider and an outsider close to the company believe the 777X likely will need a dedicated second line in Everett to avoid disrupting deliveries of existing 777 models.
Either way, the problem is where to squeeze it in. The six major assembly bays are occupied, including one devoted to a 787 "surge line" that's supposed to be temporary but isn't expected to wind down for years.
Making room in Everett
Options for making more room in Everett include:
• Moving 777 work into the large hangar that Boeing leases from Aviation Technical Services (ATS) at the south end of Paine Field. Mechanics are reworking 787 Dreamliners there now but are scheduled to be finished in early 2014, in plenty of time for the 777X.
Boeing has a pending offer to buy the facility outright, and ATS won't return to the building, said two people with knowledge of the agreement.
• Extending the 777 assembly line by relocating the fabrication of the jet's fuselage sections, now done in a bay at the rear of the assembly line.
That work could be moved elsewhere on the Everett site, perhaps into another back bay now obstructed by a balcony that would have to be ripped out.
• Making the 777 bay bigger. Within a year, Boeing plans to demolish some two-story engineering buildings directly behind the 787 and 777 bays and replace them with new office towers nearby. The land those buildings stand on is earmarked for extra parking spaces, but it also could potentially be used to extend the 777 bay toward the rear.
• Building new facilities on 75 wooded acres owned by Snohomish County on the west side of the Paine Field runway. Bill Dolan, deputy director at Paine Field airport, said that land has been reserved for aviation use.
The former ATS building is the most intriguing option. It's big enough to house a dedicated 777X assembly line, or work relocated from the main plant. Or it could be demolished to make way for a composites-wing plant.
Mike Bair, the Boeing vice president who led early development of the 787 Dreamliner, said last month that, for the 777X, "you can make a better wing out of composites."
"Look at the 787 wing. It's really thin and really long. That wing couldn't be built out of aluminum," Bair said. "If we really want to go for the maximum fuel-burn improvement, that's the direction we'd want to go."
The bigger the wing, the more benefit from using the lighter composites rather than metal. And the 777X wing promises to be the largest carbon wing ever built.
Trade publications report that Boeing engineers are considering wingspans as large as 233 feet, 20 feet more than the current 777 and longer even than the aluminum wings of the bigger 747-8.
A composite-wing facility will require a dust-free "clean room," where the resin-infused carbon fiber is laid down on a mold, as well as a giant high-pressure oven, called an autoclave, where the structure is baked to hardness.
Where could Boeing put such a facility?
Right now, big composite structures are made in Charleston, S.C. Soon, 787 composite tail parts will be produced in Salt Lake City.
The only sizable composite pieces now built in Washington are the 787 tail fin and the entire 777 tail, made at Boeing's Frederickson plant near Tacoma.
In January, Tayloe Washburn, then the top aerospace adviser to Gov. Chris Gregoire, touted Eastern Washington as a more realistic location for energy-intensive composites manufacturing, because of the high cost of electricity, land and local taxes in the western part of the state.
Yet Western Washington has one key advantage on 777X: The proposed size of the wing will make it difficult to transport.
The wings may be too big to fit inside the modified giant 747s called Dreamlifters that Boeing built to ferry 787 sections around the world. Even trucking the wings along Interstate 5 may not be possible due to their length.
Frederickson is only 15 miles from the Port of Tacoma, so it could be an option to ship the wings from there to the dock beside Boeing's Everett plant.
Of course, that dock also could accept shipments from Japan, where Mitsubishi has gained unique expertise in making the composite wings of the Dreamliner.
However, all indications are that Boeing will build the 777X wings in-house.
Tim Clark, president of the biggest 777 customer, Emirates, said in an interview after he was briefed on the 777X that he's "absolutely sure" Boeing will steer clear of the supply-chain issues that created the 787 manufacturing debacle.
"Boeing is good at wings," Clark said, "I don't think parting out manufacturing is something they are going to do lightly after what happened on the 787."
Indeed, 777X will be the first major test of Boeing management's professed determination to protect its key intellectual property post-787.
In an interview with The Seattle Times two years ago, Albaugh said Boeing had outsourced too much on the 787 and must identify "the things that we need to hold close."
He then listed key elements, including the wings, and declared: "You never outsource that."
Reminded that Boeing already had done so, he said, "Well, we'll build other airplanes."
The 777X is the next one up. Boeing might want to hold close the largest composite wing in the air.
Other locations no doubt will stake their claims for the wings.
Boeing could expect financial incentives to set up a nonunion plant at some new site in the Southeast, similar to Boeing Charleston.
And an engineering giant always can overcome transportation problems. Airbus, for example, delivers the massive aluminum wings of its A380 superjumbo jet — bigger than those of the 777X — from north Wales to southern France.
It barges the wings 22 miles downriver from its wing plant, ships them by sea to Bordeaux, then barges them 59 miles inland, and covers the final 149 miles to the final assembly site in Toulouse via road at night.
John Monroe, a former Boeing 777 executive who consults for Snohomish County on aerospace manufacturing, said Washington state should facilitate Boeing expansion to maximize jobs in the region.
He said the state needs to maintain the push that last year secured Boeing's 737 MAX for Renton. The IAM agreed on a landmark labor deal with the company, and government officials promised to train workers, to extend tax incentives and to speed planning and regulatory approvals.
"Now we have the MAX decision and the IAM labor accord behind us, I worry we'll become complacent again," Monroe said.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963
This article was originally published April 23, 2012, and corrected June 5, 2012. Mitsubishi's 787 wing plant is in Nagoya, not Narita as originally reported.