Boeing’s Renton plant bustling despite job cuts elsewhere
Boeing expects to hire hundreds of additional Machinists at the 737 plant even as it trims employment in other Puget Sound operations.
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
Despite the recent spate of bad employment news from Boeing, there is only good news out of the jet-maker’s Renton assembly plant.
Boeing expects to hire several hundred more Machinists there this year.
The increase, driven by an ambitious ramp-up in output, contrasts with layoffs at the Everett widebody plant and the move of hundreds of other Boeing jobs out of state, which have prompted questions about the company’s overall plans here.
“Renton is going up, not down,” said Pat Shanahan, Boeing’s senior vice president of airplane programs, at media briefings in advance of the Paris Air Show, which opens Monday.
The plant, which assembles 737 single-aisle jets, is accelerating toward a goal early next year of 42 planes a month — two for every working day — and will need to staff up.
“We’ll add a few hundred people by the end of the year,” said Bev Wyse, head of the Renton plant. “We’ll recall some of those employees that have been laid off,” she added, referring to the 800 Machinists slated to lose jobs in Everett.
“Employment in Puget Sound is going to remain robust — very strong — over the next few years, as we continue to increase rate on the 737 as well as the 787.”
Renton is, indeed, a hive of activity.
In the past year, Boeing has completed an intricate restructuring of the second 737 final-assembly line. Since April, both lines have increased production to 19 jets per month, and will rise to 21 each early next year.
The rate increases are achieved not only through reconfiguring the assembly lines but also through changes, suggested by employees, that can be small but have a dramatic impact.
On a tour of the assembly lines, Nishma Shrestha, lead engineer on 737 wire-installation design, said Boeing cut 15 hours of labor out of final assembly for each 737 with one change: having suppliers bundle wiring together with tape instead of plastic zip ties.
The plastic ties had required assembly mechanics to laboriously snip off the little nubs on more than 5,400 ties around the many wire bundles that go into each plane. The task was time-consuming and frequently led to mishaps with cut wires.
This apparently simple change, prompted by a study in 2010, required complex coordination and was finally implemented on all 737s in January.
Speeding fabrication of the 737 wings is key to further expected rate increases. A duplicate of the Renton site’s new, highly efficient wing-assembly line will be completed this year and operational early next.
Boeing also will soon begin installing a new automated line designed by Electroimpact of Mukilteo for making the wing panels.
Even as the 737 rate increases are implemented, Renton’s manufacturing guru, Marty Chamberlin, is planning a third final assembly line to accommodate the forthcoming 737 MAX, the first of which is to fly in 2016.
Construction is almost finished, too, on a new office complex and service center — where employees can get dry cleaning, rent DVDs and buy snacks — for the cadre of engineers working on the MAX.
Within that complex, Chamberlin, director of operations for the MAX, showed off a full-scale mock-up of the 737 MAX cockpit and forward fuselage, made from plywood, metal, plastic and fiberglass.
Engineers used it to verify that all the equipment under the cockpit floor, including the nose landing gear that’s larger on the MAX than on the current 737, would fit in the required space and leave room for mechanics to gain access.
Chamberlin said everything is on track for the MAX, which means Renton can look forward to steady work through the end of the decade.
Yet at the media briefings, executives were peppered with questions about the recent employment reductions elsewhere in the Puget Sound area.
In addition to the expected Machinist layoffs, Boeing announced cuts of up to 1,700 local engineering jobs this year, with as many as 700 of those coming from layoffs.
In April, Mike Delaney, head of engineering, attributed those reductions to a lull in airplane-development work until the 787-10 and 777X programs are launched.
Aviation-industry insiders believe the launch of the 787-10 could come as early as Monday at the Paris Air Show, with the 777X launch to follow no later than fall.
Separately, Boeing last month said it will move engineering support for airlines operating out-of-production airplanes — such as older 737s or 757s — from Tukwila to Long Beach, Calif. That will affect about 300 jobs here.
And a Boeing unit that provides flight training told workers it will cut employment by 5 percent this year, through a combination of attrition and moving flight simulators from Seattle to Miami.
The sites in California, Florida and South Carolina that are gaining engineering work as the Puget Sound region loses it are all nonunion.
Ray Goforth, executive director of the white-collar union at Boeing, the Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), said it is “a common belief in the workplace that Chicago is mandating cuts.”
He questioned the efficiency of moving the 787 flight simulators from this area, noting that local Boeing pilots who train customers to fly the jet had to fly to Singapore last weekend to log time on simulators there so they could keep their credentials current.
“They used to walk down the stairs,” said Goforth.
Boeing “is making a mistake when it moves work from its centers of experience,” he said.
At the pre-Paris media briefings, Boeing Vice President Lynne Thompson, who heads the airline engineering-support unit, said moving some work to Long Beach allows her to cut expensive contractors here and “maximize the use of head count that’s available” elsewhere in the company.
Boeing has about 2,000 airline-support engineers in Tukwila, 500 more in Everett and 500 in Long Beach.
“We’ve had contract hires in place for over 10 years because we can’t access all the talent that we need in Puget Sound,” Thompson said.
Boeing’s new 20-year forecast for the commercial-jet market, released Tuesday, projects the number of airplanes in the world doubling from just over 20,000 today (with 13,000 of those built by Boeing) to just over 41,000 by 2023.
With its customer base set to swell ever larger, why is Boeing cutting airline-support personnel?
“We are always looking for productivity improvements,” said Thompson.
Shanahan said the recent job cuts and work relocations at local operations are not the result of any central directive from Boeing headquarters in Chicago.
“There’s no directive to cut” jobs, said Shanahan. “There’s no directive to move employment.”
But clearly, whether in airline support or jet production or supplier contracts, there is at least one directive from Boeing corporate in Chicago: Cut costs.
Boeing is seeking to increase its profit margins even as it faces an intense battle against rival Airbus for every sale.
“It is really competitive,” said Shanahan. “We need to reduce our cost structure.”
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org