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Originally published January 10, 2012 at 7:41 PM | Page modified January 11, 2012 at 11:14 AM

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Boeing fetes Renton workers for higher 737 output

Boeing 737 Vice President Beverly Wyse says Renton alone will add 600 or 700 workers this year and again next year.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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Boeing organized a party for its Renton plant employees Tuesday, celebrating their boosting of the 737 production rate to an unprecedented 35 jets every 20 work days.

Boeing 737 Vice President Beverly Wyse said the company is now looking beyond further scheduled rate hikes — to 38 jets a month next year, and 42 jets a month in 2014 — to "someday" producing 60 airplanes a month.

Along with last month's historic pact between Boeing and the Machinists union that secured the jet's next version — the 737 MAX — for Renton, that means "decades of production and thousands of jobs in Washington state," Wyse said.

As a live band played loud country rock, with artificial smoke and colored lights swirling around the cavernous assembly bay, several thousand employees were mostly standing around, unimpressed.

It's hard to pump up a crowd at 10 a.m. in the middle of a work shift, with only soft drinks and cupcakes to fuel the party.

The mood improved when the overhead crane that lifts wings and tail parts dropped beach balls onto the crowd, which happily slapped them around in a chaotic, mass volleyball session.

Behind its earnest effort to lay on some fun, Boeing more successfully provided shout-outs to specific employee teams that have helped make the 737 assembly line the company's most efficient production system.

Those teams redesigned those big swiveling handles on the passenger doors; they speeded up how the engines are readied to hang on the wings and the way the wheel wells are installed.

Each of these changes has produced big savings in time and money and allowed Boeing to raise the production rate, which has climbed steadily since 2003 when Renton was rolling out just 14 of the jets a month.

Last Friday, Boeing signed up 137 new production workers at its orientation center next to Boeing Field.

Throughout 2011, it signed up between 100 and 200 Machinists in similar sessions most Fridays and added 8,000 jobs in Washington state.

Wyse said Renton alone will add an additional 600 or 700 workers this year and again next year.

The plan for 737 MAX production is still in flux, but Wyse said the favored option currently is to build a new assembly line to add to the two current commercial 737 lines and one military line for the P-8 anti-submarine jet based on the 737.

To make room, Boeing is looking to move a series of feeder lines, from which engines, wing edges and tail rudders flow to the adjacent moving assembly line.

Cristian Ofsthus, senior manager for the wing-body join area of 737 final assembly, said some of that work could perhaps move underneath the balconies within the current assembly bay, while some may have to move to another building or to a nearby location.

"We're looking for space right now," said Ofsthus.

Wyse said that with the final design of the 737 MAX not yet pinned down, it will take up to two years to determine what changes are required inside the factory

She said Boeing is planning the designs of both the plane and production system in parallel, "to make sure we can build it efficiently."

Boeing has targeted 2017 for the MAX's entry into service, but its goal is to move that up to 2016.

As engineers work to finalize the MAX production system, they'll rely on the Renton workforce for improvements in the manufacturing process similar to those achieved in the past couple of years.

On a tour of the line Tuesday, design engineer Fred Siebert showed off his redesign of the swiveling passenger-door handle.

Previously, fully half the door handles that came in had to be scrapped, mostly because of flaws in a lacquer coating, costing Boeing $200,000 a year.

Siebert redesigned the handle so that it was machined locally instead of forged in the U.K., and given a sleek, iPod-style anodized finish rather than a coating.

He also reduced the number of parts from 13 or 14 to just three, greatly simplifying the handle's assembly, which is done by Skills Inc., a company that employs people with disabilities in sheltered workshops in Auburn and Ballard.

What's the scrap rate now? "It's gone to zero," said Siebert.

Project manager Bill Nyland showed off the feeder line where the engines hang from a metal rail as they are built up and readied to go on the 737's wings.

Where previously two engines at a time were worked on, with too many people trying to get to each engine, Nyland's team introduced an extra station to spread out the work and allow three engines to be readied simultaneously.

And John Daniel, lead engineer focused on reducing the work of installing hydraulic systems, provided an example of where 18 months ago production workers helped greatly improve one problematic part of the manufacturing process.

Daniel said assembly of the plane's wheel-well area — the space where the wheels are tucked away in flight, an area full of tubes, pumps and valves — was cut by more than 30 hours after Boeing switched to installing much of the hydraulic system as 27 modular assemblies instead a 1,000 parts piece by piece.

Boeing said assembly mechanic Doug Jones "had a strong influence on the design." The mechanic's suggestions included rerouting tubing through one particularly tricky area to make installation easier.

At the celebration Tuesday, Wyse gave credit to the entire workforce, from engineers and mechanics, to planners, supply-chain managers and parts fabricators.

"This party is for you," she said.

Then with 35-a-month achieved, the party was over.

After lunch it was back to work and the search for further improvements needed to meet future plans.

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

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