The 777X is the next chapter in the Triple Seven story. (Boeing)

Twenty years ago, Boeing's best-selling 777 entered service with United Airlines. As the company prepares to extend this family with the improved 777X, TIM ROBINSON reports from Seattle on the advanced manufacturing changes underway for it and other Boeing airliners.

Earlier this year an iconic feminist and aviation icon passed away. ‘Rosie the Riveter’ whose morale-boosting Norman Rockwell painting came to symbolise the mobilisation of women in the WW2 workforce was, in reality, Mary Doyle Keefe, a telephone operator rather than a manual labourer.

However, today, the era of 'Rosie the Riveter' in US aircraft factories is set to pass further into history as Boeing embarks on the biggest shake-up in its production methods in perhaps 60 years, bringing in new levels of automation and automotive-like advanced manufacturing for its latest products. This, hopes the company, will allow it to keep up with the unprecedented demand from airlines, while unleashing new efficiencies and savings, as well as simultaneously retaining and even improving on the quality.

Taking it to ‘the bridge’

The current 777 production line at Boeing's Everett factory. (Boeing)

Key to the introduction of new models such as the 787-10, 737 MAX and 777X could be summed up as ‘Never risk that production system we are so proud of’. The shadows of the first days of the Dreamliner, with spare parts piling up, fastener shortages and customers angrily waiting to receive their first 787s, is something that weighs heavily at the back of minds in Seattle. Though these are all variants rather than clean-sheet designs — integrating these new models smoothy and seamlessly with a production system running at (for the aerospace industry) such high capacity, is a major challenge.

Thus the word on almost everyones’ lips in Boeing factories in and around Seattle is ‘the bridge’ or the transition from existing models (777, 737NG) to the new ones (777X, 737 MAX) while not breaking the flow of production rates — which are at an all-time high (42 a month for 737 and 8·3 a month for 777).

To achieve this, Boeing is ushering in a new age of factory automation, advancing manufacturing and optimised production processes. Additionally the company is boosting the commerical viability of the ‘classic’ 777 with aerodynamic, interior and performance tweaks to tide customers over to the 777X. Says Elizabeth Lund, Vice President and General Manager, 777, Boeing Commercial Airplanes: “Near term, with the improvements we've made to the airplane and the availability, we have the potential to maintain market leadership in the next few years as we transition to the 777X.” All told, the 777 has racked up 1,866 orders for Boeing from 68 different customers, 300 of these commitments for the forthcoming composite-winged 777X that was launched two years ago at the Dubai Air Show. 

Improving on a classic

The first Boeing 777-200 prototype. (RAes/NAL)

But Boeing is not resting on its laurels for buyers of the ‘classic’ 777 widebody. “We're not through investing in this airplane” says Lund. A series of tweaks and enhancements is set to improve fuel efficiency by 2% — even as Boeing heads into ‘the bridge’. These include elevator trim bias, deletion of the tail skid, smoothing of window extrusions and a new flaps 25 setting for autloand. These tweaks also include some optional cabin improvements such as LED lighting, reduced cabin and straight aft seat tracks which allows 14 extra seats to be added. Half a percent of fuel effiency will also come from improvments to the GE90 engines. Baseline improvments to this PIP (Performance Improvement Package) are expected to be phased into service between now and Q3 2016 — bridging the gap between the 777 and 777X, with some cabin options already available. All told, says Boeing, this gives the 2016 777 PIP as much as 5% fuel burn savings on a per-seat basis over the existing 777-300ER. This, believes the company, will mean the ‘classic’ 777 will continue to be a competitive product that allows them to seamlessly transition over to the next generation 777X before it enters service at the end of the decade — without any sharp drop-off in production rates between the old and new.

With 27 passenger orders for the 777-300ER so far this year, Boeing is confident that the transition should be smooth. Says Elizabeth Lund: “If we can sell 50-60 777s a year [going into the bridge], that has us on a path to succeed and be where we need to be.”

Building the 777X

This tool on the Evereet assembly line rotates a 777 fuselage section.

Meanwhile, for the 777X there is much work going on in Everett to prepare for production of the new widebody. Boeing is taking no chances in de-risking the production process ready for it. The 777X will first be built on what is now the 787 Dreamliner ‘surge’ line in a low rate initial production LRIP — allowing the 777 and 777X lines to run alongside each other. The first 777X is set go down that line in 2018.

The 777 production line at Everett is set to be transformed through reorganistion, optimisation and automation. This will involve going to a ‘pulsed’ moving line for body structures and a flexible monument-free working environment. The biggest change on the 777X, the giant composite wing (with folding wingtips) will also be done on site at Everett, with a new building going up at the moment.

Meet ‘R2D2 the Riveter’

The new Fuselage Automated Upright Build (FAUB) is part of wave of automation sweeping through Boeing's factories. (Boeing)

These transformations will also be accompanied by new levels of automation. Already set to be introduced by the end of this year is the new Fuselage Automated Upright Build (FAUB) — a robotic technology that drills, fills and seals automatically. Robot arms will fasten panels together with the nearly 50-60,000 fasteners that are today installed by hand. A highly repetitive part of the production process, it is also hazardous work. Boeing estimate that half of workplace injuries on the 777 happen in this part of the production process.

Key to the FAUB is technologly that sychronises the robots on both the inner and outer part of the fuselage as drilling, filling and sealing takes place. Indeed, it is the first in the world, say Boeing with a two-sided capability. With this advanced automation, comes other advantages. The build can be done upright as (unlike humans) the robots do not prefer to apply force in one direction. Second, as noted earlier, the automated process promises higher, more consistent levels of quality — once the machine is ‘dialled in’. This will speed up production and reduce waste and rework — with the FAUB promising an intial 50% improvement in productivity.

Boeing has already trialled the FAUB, which is built by KUKA Systems, at a facility nearby in Washington state, at Anacortes, over the past year on a ‘franken-barrel’ representative fuselage section. This is currently being fatigue-tested and validated to three complete lifetime cycles. Even with all this testing, the company’s mantra is ‘never risk the production flow’. So the FAUB will be installed in a 325,000sq ft factory extension to feed a parallel production line until it is mature enough to be incorporated completely. Says Jason Clark, VP of operations 777 and 777X, of this advanced manufacturing milestone: “We've basically been building aircraft the same way for 50-60 years – this is new technology for us”.

Meanwhile, automated cradles to shift 777 fuselage sections around the factory are also expected to bring benefits to production. Unlike traditional tools or jigs designed for specific sections, these cradles will be software-based and thus ‘agnostic’ to what variant or how long a section is. Indeed, Boeing expect that even once the 777X takes over the main line, composite and aluminium-winged 777s will be produced in the same facility – noting that the metal-winged freighter 777F version will continue in production alongside the 777X.

Finally, there is a new empennage assembly process — which is set to start production in the 4Q of this year. This uses automated guided robots to drill, countersink and temporarily fasten empennage panels — giving an 80% reduction in manual drilling operations. Again the benefits of automation mean that ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ working positions mean nothing to machines — and there is no need to ‘retool’ for different parts of the tail.

From repetitive work to supervision

The automation still needs human supervision and skills to optimise the process. (Boeing)

The benefits are not hard to find. Repetitive, tiring work that can be better done by machines is nothing new. Machines, unlike humans, can operate upside down, applying force that would require components to be rotated around for humans to drill. Once dialled in, the automated systems produce a consistent, level of high-quality work. This is crucial to acheive the production levels that Boeing is aiming for.

This is not to say, however, that Boeing's factories will become human-free robotic production lines. Skilled workers will still be needed to oversee the machines — particulary when there are problems. For instance, an experienced machinist can tell from sound alone whether the machine has drilled a component correctly. Automation, is expected to free-up skilled workers to supervise and optimise the advanced manufacturing and keep the production going at an ever faster rate.

The wings the thing

The 777X Composite Wing Center (CWC) currently under construction at Boeing’s Everett factory. (Boeing)   

While automation and advanced manufacturing are part of the 777X's future, perhaps the most visible part of the new production line is a new building going up on the Everett site which will make the aircraft's composite wings. This 1·3million sq ft building, is likely to be one of, if not the, biggest industrial construction projects in Pacific NorthWest and will be home to three 120ft x 28ft autoclaves each weighing 1·2million lbs – which are set to be installed in the next quarter. The Composite Wing Center (CWC) factory has 17 cranes on site (with weekly updates being to nearby Paine Field Airport ATC as to the location of them). It is estimated that the construction will involve some 6,000 people completing the CWC, which is scheduled to be ready by May 2016.

MAX output

New Panel Assembly Line (PAL) machine for 737 wing panels. On 2 June the first 737 MAX panels were loaded into the machine. 

It is not just the 777 line where automation and advanced manufacturing are being introduced in in Boeing’s plants. The single-aisle 737 factory at Renton too is currently undergoing a transformation as Boeing prepares to introduce the MAX. It is striking to think that only as recently as 20 years ago, the concept of rate 24 (or 24 aircraft a month) for the 737 was viewed as maximum and rate 31 was 'a concern'. Today the rate is at 42 a month and heading towards rate 60 — and all in one single huge production facility in Renton with three final assembly lines. Transitioning this complex production process without breaking the flow or disrupting the beat is thus a major undertaking.

To that end the production process is being reorganised — with ‘pulsed’ fuselage integration stations now being expanded and upgraded to allow nine 737 fuselages to be worked on at once, three abreast. With space inside the Renton factory at a premium, Boeing has used the vertical — raising the tool so that fuselages can be worked on via three stories. This has the added advantage of clearing a space underneath the tooling for parts. Kitted parts are moved to workers, rather than the other way around. “We're treating them like surgeons” said one Boeing executive.

Like the 777, Boeing is taking no chances when it comes to derisking the bridge‘ to the MAX. The MAX will be first produced on an isolated central line, allowing production to build up smoothly and not interrupt the production rate of 42 aircraft a month on the other two 737 lines.

Finally, the 737 line is also seeing new automation introduced. On 2 June the first wing panels for the MAX and stringers were loaded into the new panel assembly line (PAL) that drills holes and installs fasteners. Like the automation on the 777 line, the PAL reduces repetitive strain and injuries while improving quality — defects are cut by 60%. With the first component loaded into the system the first 737 MAX is set for delivery in 2017.

787 and 767 not left out

And although the 777X and 737 MAX are speaheading these changes in automation and advanced manufacturing — other programmes are also set to benefit. For example, Boeing sees a smooth transition to the latest 787-10 Dreamliner — which will be built exclusively in Charleston. The -10 benefits from a high commonality with the 787-9, which Charleston already produces. This is expected to de-risk the production of this new variant at a relatively new factory as Boeing ramps up 787 production to 12 a month in 2016 and to 14 by the end of the decade.

Remarkably, the wave of factory automation is even extending to the 767, despite the freighter and the military KC-46 being the last variants. Indeed the production is set to rise to two a month in the 1Q of 2016. In mid-2013 automated spar assembly machines for the 767 were installed — capable of doing the work six times faster than the legacy machines they replaced. Small tweaks, such as new 'dagger' style manufacturing joins and PIP fuel efficiency aim to keep the 767 ahead.


The new 737 fuselage integration tool allows three production lines to be fed with great efficiency.

With both Airbus and Boeing now sitting on record backlogs of around seven years' work, the key battleground between Toulouse and Seattle has now shifted from airline sales teams to production specialists. Execution is critical. Who can ramp-up rates faster? Who can maintain flow? Who can deliver faster to waiting airlines? And who can recover faster from the inevitable setbacks and unexpected events. Rosie the Riveter may be gone but she would recognise the almost wartime production levels and speed at Boeing today as the company transforms its manufacturing processes. 


4 June 2015