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Originally published August 14, 2013 at 10:01 PM | Page modified August 15, 2013 at 2:35 PM

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Boeing secretly testing new automation for 777X

Inside a boat warehouse in Anacortes, Boeing is quietly setting up tests of new advanced automation methods for building its soon-to-be-launched 777X jet. Everett has a detailed plan to build the entire jet. Another option being studied is to have sections built in Japan.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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At a secret facility in Anacortes, more than 40 miles north of Boeing’s widebody-jet plant in Everett, a small group of engineers next month will begin testing advanced automation methods for building the soon-to-be-launched 777X jet.

The hush-hush project reveals Boeing intends to dramatically change the way the plane’s metal hull is built, reducing manual labor on that task while ramping up the overall production rate.

“We’re going to build the fuselage differently than we do now,” said a senior Boeing engineer familiar with details of the plan. “We’re going to introduce a whole lot of automation.”

Meanwhile, in a nerve-wracking process that could either boost or bust future manufacturing in the Puget Sound region, Boeing is still weighing various plans for where to put 777X manufacturing — including Everett, alternative company facilities and non-Boeing sites.

One option being weighed: Do everything in Everett.

Another: Outsource to Japan the fabrication of the fuselage sections, now done in Everett.

Boeing spokesman Mike Tull declined to discuss what’s going on inside the Anacortes facility. Regarding location of 777X manufacturing, he cautioned that “we really are studying all of our options, and no decisions have been made yet.”

The 777X, a major update to Boeing’s successful, large widebody twinjet, features composite plastic wings and new fuel-efficient engines but retains the 777’s aluminum fuselage. It’s due to enter service by the end of the decade.

The metal fuselage panels today are made in Japan, then shipped to Everett. A person with knowledge of discussions between Boeing and Mitsubishi said the two companies have studied the possibility of the 777X fuselage sections being built in Japan.

However, that outcome may be a longshot for the Japanese. The senior Boeing engineer said the company would be loath to outsource the innovation that’s brewing in Anacortes.

“There is a competition to win the business,” the senior engineer said, but “the Everett team thinks it has a plan that will be successful.”

“We have room for the wing. We have room for the (fuselage) structures. We have room for the whole thing,” the engineer added. “We’ve got a kick-ass plan.”

That detailed plan includes converting the Everett assembly bay that’s now partly used as an extra “surge line” for the 787 Dreamliner into a 777X assembly line, side by side with the existing 777 line.

Such an outcome, including manufacturing of the composite-plastic wing, could more than compensate Everett for any jobs lost to automation.

Fall launch for 777X likely

Boeing is expected to formally launch the 777X program this fall, which will trigger a huge development program employing thousands of engineers in Everett.

More than 3,000 Boeing employees now work directly on the 777 or support its production. Retaining that work as Boeing transitions to the 777X is vital to the region’s economy.

Gov. Jay Inslee has said he’ll make it a priority to streamline regulatory procedures and permitting for any development Boeing requires, and his aerospace office is expected later this year to come up with further training and infrastructure incentives.

The Anacortes project may open up a need for training in new automation processes.

Boeing has leased 18,000 square feet inside a former boat-manufacturing facility on the waterfront at Fidalgo Bay for the 16-month development and test program.

Its permit application to the Northwest Clean Air Agency describes the Anacortes operation as a “temporary project” that will run from next month through the end of 2014, and “will involve the assembly of a non-production aft aircraft fuselage and a shorter test fuselage section.”

“The project investigates the use of new automation technologies in the assembly of aircraft fuselages,” the application states. “The project is being conducted by our Engineering and Research & Technology groups and the parts that will be made in Anacortes will not be used for production purposes.”

The Boeing engineer said the research is aimed at heading off competition from the Airbus A350-1000 by increasing 777 production substantially above the current rate of 100 jets per year.

A bottleneck in the existing 777 manufacturing process is the big fixtures — referred to in the industry as “tooling” — that hold large, curved metal panels in position as they are fastened together into 777 fuselage barrels.

To ensure perfect alignment, the lower lobe of each fuselage section is first constructed upside down on top of the precisely positioned passenger-floor grid.

This lower lobe must then be lifted by crane out of the fixture and placed in a giant turning tool that flips the whole thing right-side-up.

Then another crane moves the piece to a different fixture for the buildup of the upper lobe.

Boeing aims through automation to make fabricating the fuselage sections much more efficient, allowing it to increase the 777 production rate from today’s 8.3 jets per month potentially to 10 or 12 jets per month.

The senior engineer declined to provide technical details of the automation research, for competitive reasons. He conceded Boeing is “playing catch-up to Airbus” in automation of manufacturing.

George Bullen, an expert on automation of airframe manufacturing and formerly head of advanced-manufacturing technology and advanced programs for Northrop Grumman, agreed.

“They’ve gone for a higher degree of automation” at Airbus, Bullen said.

He said there are well-established ways to update the way the 777 fuselage is built. For instance, Boeing can rotate the fuselage section within the tooling to assemble the other side, rather than moving it by crane into a separate tool to turn it.

“There’s only so many options open,” Bullen said. “There’s no magic out there.”

Unions unaware

Boeing has kept the Anacortes project quiet until now, with only a limited number of employees aware of it. Representatives of both the Machinists union and the engineering union said neither has been informed.

Bullen said companies typically sell such innovation to their unions with several arguments.

First, the work will stay here instead of being outsourced. And the jobs of tending the robots and automated drilling machines, though fewer, typically come with higher pay than that of a regular assembly mechanic.

Additionally, the prospect of significantly stepping up production should mean more jobs at final assembly and during the delivery process, with potentially no overall decline in employment.

The unions would no doubt be much more upset if Boeing instead chose to outsource 777 fuselage fabrication to Japan.

That’s an option first considered 10 years ago.

According to a presentation reviewed by The Seattle Times at the time, a phased plan was presented to Alan Mulally, then chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, in September 2003 under the code name 777 HAL (for Higher Assembly Level).

In the first phase, Mitsubishi, Kawasaki and Fuji, which now supply the metal panels used to build the fuselage in Everett, were to assemble the fuselage sections in Japan and ship them by sea.

In phase two, the 777 cockpit section built in Wichita, Kan., was to go to Japan to be joined to the fuselage section behind it before shipment to Everett.

In the third and final phase, Japan was to install all systems and send fully stuffed fuselage sections to Everett for final assembly, 787 Dreamliner-style.

In 2003, when the state made its successful bid to win 787 final assembly in Everett, its offering included not only a $3.2 billion tax-break package over 20 years, but also additional sweeteners including $15.5 million toward a new barge dock at Mukilteo.

That dock, now in place, is capable of receiving very large aircraft structures and transferring them to a rail siding for a quick trip up the steep hill to the Everett plant.

The 787 has never needed the dock; its fuselage sections are flown here. Boeing had 777 HAL in mind at the time, though the plan was eventually shelved.

However, a person with knowledge of discussions this year said Mitsubishi has been working with Boeing on the possibility of reviving at least parts of this plan for the 777X.

Because Mitsubishi makes the composite plastic wings of the 787, it had been expected to be a real contender to make the 777X wings.

Sending out the fuselage sections to Japan instead would be a surprise.

But the senior Boeing engineer said that while all options have to be weighed, this one is unlikely to because the new automated tooling being developed in Anacortes is too important.

“I don’t think there’s any plan to allow the new tooling to go offshore,” the engineer said.

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

Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.

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