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Originally published Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Boeing exec vows more 787 design work to stay in-house

Boeing tells SPEEA engineers the company plans less outsourcing on future airplanes, including the next 787 Dreamliner model.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Boeing is planning less outsourcing of design work for its future airplanes — and even for an upcoming derivative of the 787 Dreamliner, the top technical executive at Boeing Commercial Airplanes said Wednesday.

Vice president of engineering Mike Denton's comments appeared aimed at reassuring Boeing's white-collar workforce about their future, as contract negotiations between the company and the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) continued for a second day — and hit a small snag.

"We have learned as a management team from the lessons of the 787-8," Denton said. "We will do more of the detailed design on the 787-9 than we did on the 787-8. We're working out those details with some of our affected partners now."

The 787-8 is the much-delayed initial model of the Dreamliner. The 787-9, the largest of three planned versions of the airplane, is now in preliminary design.

Denton's remarks drew a cautiously positive response from SPEEA executive director Ray Goforth, reached on his way to the Thursday afternoon contract negotiating session.

"It's a question of who is the 'we'," said Goforth. "If the 'we' means Boeing, does it mean Boeing Moscow? Does it mean Boeing India?

"These are unanswered questions," and SPEEA would like more details, he said.

"But in general, this is a helpful sign that the company is addressing the concerns raised by the technical workforce," Goforth added. "I think Mike is genuine in what he is saying."

Denton made his comments in an "audio blog" at the Web site Boeing has set up for its negotiations with SPEEA.

The site is designed to reach out to SPEEA members, and the blog posting went up on the day that main table talks began at a Seatac hotel. Denton is a key member of the Boeing negotiating team in those talks.

The outsourcing of the design work on the 787 has been a major concern for many Boeing engineers worried that the plane-maker is giving away its technical know-how to future competitors. Goforth has made outsourcing a top issue in the contract negotiations.

Denton, citing the need for a "course correction" due to all the problems in getting the 787-8 built, indicated that Boeing's technical leadership has got the message.

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His recorded comments also expanded on a recent statement that the globalized partner model used on the 787 will be modified for the next new Boeing airplane — likely a replacement for the Renton-built single-aisle 737, expected to enter service around 2018 or 2020.

On the 787, major partners designed and then manufactured complete huge sections of the Dreamliner.

For example, the composite plastic 787 wings are made by Mitsubishi in Japan. Boeing provided to the Japanese the "engineering architecture" of the wings — the overall concept, shape and technical parameters. The Japanese then did all the detailed design, including the internal structure of the wing.

The only major structural part of the 787 designed and built in the Puget Sound region was the tailfin, produced in Frederickson near Tacoma.

In an interview earlier this month, Denton said Boeing will likely keep "some part of major production" of the next airplane: "Whether it's all of a wing, or all of the fuselage, or some [other] part of production — all of that is to be figured out," he said.

In Wednesday's blog directed at the engineers, he said that "we will probably do more of the design and even some of the major production for the next new airplane ourselves, as opposed to having it all out with the partners."

Denton said nothing about where the next plane will be built, however.

Goforth said that during "very healthy" discussions in the opening bargaining sessions on Wednesday, Denton made the same points.

Goforth said the company's position is that it has to use all the resources available now — engineers at Boeing's foreign subsidiaries and at its major partners; as well as in-house, non-union contract engineers — in order to overcome the rash of problems its having on the 787, the 747-8 and a couple of military programs.

He said Boeing officials suggest that once those problems are under control, the company can "settle down to a workforce balance that will please our members."

But the union members worry that using non-SPEEA engineers to solve the short-term problems risks "undermining the long-term viability of the company," said Goforth.

Despite the positive early discussion, negotiations quickly turned sour in the Thursday afternoon bargaining session, which was supposed to last two hours.

When Boeing gave a flat no to three SPEEA proposals on employee leave, including a request for a holiday on Martin Luther King Day, the union negotiators walked out after just thirty minutes.

SPEEA spokesman Bill Dugovich said the union will return to the talks Friday morning.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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