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Originally published December 26, 2013 at 4:26 PM | Page modified January 2, 2014 at 3:46 PM

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Guest: Boeing is overthinking where to build the 777X

Boeing is overthinking where to build the 777X, writes guest columnist Tom McCarty.

Special to The Times

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BOEING recently announced it would build the 777X and new composite wing in Washington state if the Machinists union would agree to major concessions in wages and benefits. The union rejected the company’s first offer, and Boeing invited other areas of the country to submit proposals for the work.

On Jan. 3, the Machinists will vote on a second offer from Boeing.

Boeing’s offers indicate the company thinks Washington state is the best place to build the plane if it can get the job done cheaply enough. If Boeing builds the 777X elsewhere, it would not only cost more; it would take longer and the product would not be as good.

Launching a multi-billion-dollar aircraft program is a risky business. Boeing should carefully consider the risk of schedule delays and increased development costs resulting from using thousands of employees with no experience in the design and manufacture of commercial jet aircraft.

These should be lessons it learned from building the 787.

The 787 program took on several major challenges. The first was designing a completely new airplane. A modern commercial jet aircraft is the most complex product ever manufactured in large quantities. Any attempt to meet performance, cost and schedule targets requires an experienced team if there is to be any chance of success.

The second challenge was introducing a large amount of new technology. It was risky but necessary if the airplane was to achieve the quantum leap forward in efficiency and lower operation costs.

Management imposed its own risk by outsourcing major portions of the design and manufacturing to a workforce that didn’t have experience producing large-scale commercial jet aircraft.

Lastly, company leaders assembled the aircraft at a new site without an experienced workforce. So, while Everett was gearing up to start final assembly, Boeing was siphoning off experienced workers to get a new operation running in Charleston, S.C.

There is a limited supply of experienced jet aircraft developers and assemblers. The two assembly sites are about 3,000 miles from one another, and this sorely stretched the available resources and the schedule.

Technical issues added more delays, which were likely exacerbated by the long supplier chain which spanned many languages, cultures and time zones.

This posed a stark contrast to previous programs, which relied on a team with a shared history of airplane development, manufacturing and assembly.

As Boeing approaches the building of the 777X, the company’s managers are again obsessed with driving down labor rates and extracting maximum concessions from state and local governments where the work would be done.

What’s lacking? A realistic assessment of the risks associated with selecting a green field for aircraft assembly and the challenge of recruiting and training the required workforce. Management contends the competitive bidding from around the country is necessary to remain “competitive” and that labor costs are the chief obstacle to success.

I hope Boeing will get it right this time.

There’s plenty of room in Everett right next to Paine Field, not far from the deep-water port. We have a premium, experienced workforce. Couple this with the willingness of Washington state, Snohomish County and the city of Everett to work with Boeing in every way possible to ensure the successful execution of the 777X program.

Boeing is overthinking this. We already know how to do it and we can start tomorrow.

Tom McCarty is president of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) IFPTE Local 2001 and a Boeing engineer with 40 years of service.

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