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Pulling it together
June 22, 1983
It's called the "come-together," and that's just what the airplane does in a matter of hours inside a cavernous hangar at Boeing's Renton plant.
From nose to tail, the 757 takes shape in a series of operations as big as hoisting tons of metal by crane and as small as the painstaking alignment of body sections to tolerances measured in thousandths of an inch.
Yet the come-together, impressive as it is, is just a fragment of the puzzle of assembling a 757. One could spend days touring facilities involved in making the 757 and still come away with only a general idea of the process.
"All you've got to do is bring people in here and show them this place," said Bill Robison, director of manufacturing for the 757. "I don't know what they expect. I don't know what they think we do.
"Or sometimes I really don't know how to display it to them ... the vastness of that factory ... the gee-whiz numbers you can quote to them, like 60,000 assemblies. It's hard for people to comprehend."
The hangar in which the come-together and final assembly take place is known as the 4-81 Building. It adjoins the 4-80 Building, where 737s are assembled. The two actually form a single structure, the largest at the Renton complex.
Like the Kingdome, it is an edifice which seems bigger inside than out. It swallows men and machines, making the snap of a rivet gun or the hum of an electric ceiling crane sound remote. Viewed from a lofty perch inside the hangar, workers almost vanish in the vastness of the enclosed space.
The scope of the Boeing operation is all the more overwhelming when compared to the manufacturing facilities of Boeing's rival, the European consortium Airbus Industrie. Though impressive in its own right, the Airbus operation is dwarfed by Boeing's.
After the come-together, Boeing 757s, their metal skins covered with a yellow-green protective coating, are assembled on a line with six stations. AT each station certain tasks are done to the interior and exterior: wiring the cockpit, installing the galleys, hanging the engines ...
When an airplane has migrated the length of the hangar, past all six stations, it is moved outside and five planes behind it each move up to the next station. This leaves an open spot at the first station, where the next 757 will start to come together.
The first time a 757's wings take to the air they are suspended by cables from two cranes crawling just beneath the ceiling of the 4-81 Building. That is the beginning of the come-together, and laborers pause to gaze aloft at the sight: two wings mated to either side of a short, hollow section of fuselage.
Crane operators slowly bring the suspended wing assembly into place over an array of steel scaffolds, beams, braces and ramps at the first station. These imposing contraptions, rising from the hangar floor, are known at Boeing as "tools."
Tools range from scaffolding to hand-held devices, from mammoth computer-driven riveting machines to steel frames in which airplane subassemblies are created. Many tools are one-of-a-kind, and they must meet exacting standards because many parts of the airplane must fit together with precision.
Increasingly, tools are replacing skilled laborers.
"We've poured well over $2 billion into high-productivity machinery in the plant in the last four or five years," said John Swihart, a Boeing vice president, referring to Boeing's whole commercial-airplane operation.
"If you throw in the development cost of the two new airplanes on top of that, we've poured about $6 billion into making us the most productive airplane-manufacturing company in the world. We've got machines today that are 40 percent more productive than what we used four years ago. We're building more pounds of airplanes today than we were at our best point, with half the people."
The tooling onto which the wing assembly is lowered contains hydraulic jacks to level the fuselage, plus a maze of walkways and work areas.
The next section to be lowered into place during the come-together is the aft section of fuselage, which extends from just behind the wings to the back end of the airplane. Neither the vertical tail nor horizontal tail (the small set of wings at the back of a jetliner) are attached to the tubular section at this point.
Finally, huge doors open to let a tractor pull the forward fuselage section into the hangar. One crane hooks onto the front of the nose section and another hooks to the rear. The hollow shell is hoisted and set in alignment with the two wing sections.
Suddenly an airplane has taken shape, although the individual sections still are more than a foot apart. Over the next several hours, workers will inch them together, measuring and leveling with surveying tools.
But even after the come-together is complete, the 757 is still weeks away from screaming down a nearby runway for its first flight.
THE COME-TOGETHER and much of the assembly of the 757 is done at the Renton complex, but the manufacture of the airplane is spread around the U.S. and the world.
The nose, for instance, is made at Boeing's Wichita plant, the tail by Vought in Texas, the engines by Rolls Royce in Derby, England.
In fact, only 48 percent of the first 757 to roll of the production line was made "in-plant" at Renton. Sixteen percent was made at other Boeing locations and 36 percent by non-Boeing companies in the U.S. and abroad.
These figures change. Until last year, Rockwell was a major subcontractor on the 757, making much of the airplane's fuselage. Now Boeing is doing the work at Renton.
Jim Madewell, who was general manager of the Rockwell project, said the company had initial problems applying the ultra-thin skin on the 757 fuselage sections without introducing subtle wrinkles.
The problem was resolved with experience, but soon Boeing needed more work in its Renton plant and Rockwell needed to use its capacity for the B-1 bomber project, so the companies agreed to cancel their contract, Madewell said.
Before recession hit the airline industry a couple of years ago, Boeing was so busy it didn't have capacity either to engineer or manufacture the 757 without outside help.
Major subcontractors were selected partly for their willingness to loan aerospace engineers to Boeing. Nearly 1,000 engineers relocated temporarily in the Seattle area, remaining on the payrolls of the subcontractors but working at Boeing's direction on the 757 and 767 programs.
"We simply told them that without the engineers, there would be no contract awards," Frank Gregory, Boeing's director of personnel, said in mid-1979. "The engineer shortage is so severe that it was a do-or-die situation."
The arrangement often suited the subcontractors. A Northern Ireland company, Short Bros., dispatched engineers to Seattle for a year to design inboard flaps for the 757, which the firm later manufactured. "I think our engineers came back better engineers," said Jim McKerrow, Short Bros.' New business manager. "There was an educational value."
Jack Edwards, who headed procurement for the 757 project, estimated that as many as 400 Boeing employees were involved in finding suppliers and subcontractors and striking deals.
"The contracts are very complicated," Edwards said. "We're talking billions of dollars."
Early on, Boeing decided which parts of the airplane would be made in-house, and which parts would be acquired elsewhere. Procurement teams assembled lists of potential suppliers for each part or section of the 757. To be considered, a supplier had to demonstrate it could comply with Boeing contractual terms in areas such as price, production rate and quality.
"We look at their financial situation to see that they can handle this kind of thing, because on most program we ask them, in effect, to share costs - to defer non-recurring charges until we start delivering airplanes," Edwards said.
Altogether, 37 major subcontractors were signed up for the 757 project, plus hundreds of major suppliers.
Once contracts were let, Boeing could not afford to assume the subcontractors would meet their obligations. Late arrival of a part or assembly would delay construction of the airplane, so Boeing representatives visited subcontractors frequently to observe work progress.
Subcontractors also submitted documentation of progress each week for Boeing to review. "If we see where we're running into any problem items, we can immediately react," Edwards said.
"You're always running into somebody who's going bankrupt," said E.V. Fenn, who was general manager of the 757 program for most of its formative years. "Or somebody's having problems."
Problems are commonplace because of the complexity of the manufacturing process and the evolving nature of the airplane's design. The design literally changes up until the day the airplane is delivered, though most major changes occur relatively early in development.
Boeing tries to anticipate potential changes and negotiates contracts accordingly. The idea is to keep cost increases to a minimum - and assure that parts are delivered on time.
SOMETIMES CONTRACTS and foresight aren't enough to produce the parts Boeing needs to build an airplane. When that happens, the company turns to the world's largest machine shop for help.
It is the Boeing Fabrication Division, which headquarters in Auburn and a sizeable operation near Boeing Field. It receives little outside recognition, but supports dozens of Boeing programs, from hydrofoils to helicopters, from spaceships to jetliners.
The division turns out 1.25 million machined parts a month. Just to shave some of those metal parts to proper shape may require as many as 12 different cutting heads on a million-dollar machine.
"Auburn," as the Fabrication Division is known, "supplies the lifeline items for the assembly line, the things that are totally critical in keeping the airplanes on schedule," said Fenn, who managed the division at one time. Manufacture of wings spars, skins and other critical items can be kept close to home this way, he said.
The Fabrication Division also is the manufacturing equivalent of a military rapid-deployment force. When a subcontractor is late or there's a rush change order, Boeing can put a great deal of manufacturing power to work quickly.
"Auburn's got a quick-reaction capability, so the line never falters," Fenn said.
"Auburn" more closely resembles a stereotypical factory than most Boeing manufacturing operations. Huge rooms, some smelling of oil, house millions of dollars worth of machinery.
Another contrast between the machine shops of Auburn and other Boeing divisions is that many Auburn workers have now idea what they're making. The shapes they create often seem almost abstract.
"We never worry about what it is," said one man working on a metal part. "As long as I have something to do, that's what I worry about."
Jay Hess tends a precision boring mill at the Auburn division. The machine was automated last fall. "I did it for 18 years by hand," Hess said. "It has harder work, but it becomes a part of you. I've been doing it by pushbutton for two months, and it's a big adjustment."
As Hess spoke, workers started a 15-minute break. A ping-pong table appeared in a flash and four men played a spirited game until the break was over. Then the table vanished and work resumed.
In addition to making critical parts for aircraft, the Fabrication Division makes the tools that make the airplanes.
For instance, the 757's doors are assembled in Renton on frames made by the Fabrication Division. Each door is made on a different series of frames.
Altogether, 36 frames are used to manufacture 757 doors and the cost of making each frame averages $750,000, according to Lloyd Susee, 757 door-shop supervisor.
The expense is due to the precision required. Control points along the lines of the frame must be accurate to tolerances of .0025 of an inch, so that doors-which must mate with the airplane-will enjoy similar tolerances.
"Everything," Susee said with emphasis, "has got to fit."
THE WING SKINS of the 757 begin as large sheets of inch-thick aluminum at Auburn.
They are stacked flat and on edge along with the larger wings of 747s and 767s and the smaller wings of 727s and 737s, all inside a "skin and spar mill" which is almost a quarter-mile long.
The aluminum sheets are carved and contoured at Auburn to thicknesses of as little as 8 one-hundredths of an inch. The work is automated, with one man watching over a sprawling machine that works its way down the wing.
"All you've got to do is put the right cutter in and make sure nothing goes wrong," an operator said.
A close look at an aluminum wing skin reveals its thickness is not uniform. Surplus weight is an enemy of efficient flight, so the metal is shaved surprisingly thin in many places to eliminate each unnecessary ounce.
Thinner skins, fewer fasteners and use of composite materials such as graphite are factors in reducing the wing weight, part of an intense and successful campaign by Boeing to keep the 757's weight as low as possible.
"It doesn't make it any weaker," said Bill Arthalony, supervisor on the 757 wing line in Renton, referring to the thin skin of the wing. "The wing when it's airborne doesn't weigh anything."
The key to a strong wing is strong fasteners, said Ken Storkel, a factory manager in Renton.
The aluminum skins are subjected to bombardment by millions of tiny balls like buckshot. This "shot peening" releases stress, strengthens the metal and imparts a texture.
The skins next are dipped into tanks of nitric acid for cleaning, then tested for cracks with a dye penetrate.
The 63-foot-long wing skins and the wing's "stringers" are moved from Auburn to Renton. Two stringers, running from the body of the airplane to the wingtip, connect three side-by-side skins into a single large surface called a panel assembly. There is one panel assembly for the top of the wing and another for the bottom.
The skins are attached to the stringers by mammoth computer-controlled machines known as Drivematics. The skins are held on edge while the machine moves methodically from one end to the other, pausing every few moments to automatically drill, ream and countersink a hole, install a rivet and microshave its head to present smooth skin.
"It's a tremendous labor saver," Storkel said. "It does cut jobs, but we call it a productivity improvement. That's the only way you can compete."
Meanwhile, spars for the front and rear of each wing are fashioned from aluminum on a balcony in one of Boeing's many buildings in Renton. Each spar has a graphite skin.
The panel assemblies and spars are brought together and wrapped around wing ribs on a series of enormous jigs. Titanium rivets are used to hold everything together. Some of the rivets are cooled to 40 degrees below zero before insertion, yielding a tight fit as they warm to normal temperatures and expand.
Finally, the wings are removed to the floor of the factory, where flaps and slats and other assemblies are added.
The wings are tested for fuel tightness, too, since thousands of pounds of jet fuel will be stored in them. There is no bladder or lining; the fuel is directly in contact with the inside of the aluminum wing.
"What we're building is a fuel cell," Arthalony said.
"It just happens it is also a wing," added Storkel.
HUMAN INGENUITY found a lot of ways to save weight in the 757. And that saved money.
Boeing estimates the weight reductions will save more than $100 million on the production costs of the first 300 757s.
From engineering to manufacturing, Boeing employees pondered ways to trim an ounce or a pound. Dick Burnham, and engineering assistant, came up with numerous ideas - little thoughts that added up.
For example, it occurred to Burnham that carpet padding wasn't needed under that portion of the carpeting extending up the side wall of the airplane. The padding was removed.
The walls, partitions and ceilings in the 757 are made of composite materials. The ceiling panels are a crushed honeycomb product, strong and yet so light that the panels for the entire 525-square-foot ceiling weight only 180 pounds - and almost half of that is for the hardware that holds the panels up.
Seats in the 757 are manufactured in sets of three - and a set weighs a total of only 55 pounds. New seats, soon to be released, will weigh only 47 pounds a set.
Computers are beginning to reshape the role of the American worker, and the signs of change are unmistakable at Boeing. Computers increasingly are challenging human ingenuity for supremacy in areas such as saving weight.
Even the colors on the 757's tail are getting a computer assist.
"Five years ago we were putting a sign painter out there and we'd hope the customer would like the results," said Robison, the director of manufacturing. Each plane was slightly different because it was painted by hand, but "today we're giving them a computer-generated stencil, and every one of them is identical."
The same is true of carpets for airplane interiors. Garth Cooper, lead operator of manufacturing-engineering computer graphics, says it once took 120 days to design and finish a template that could be used to cut carpeting. Now a computer does it in only 10 days.
"Up until now we've had to cut these templates by hand," Cooper said, but now a computer-driven machine also does that. The next step is to have the machines cut the carpet, too.
D.P. Tingwall, chief project engineer for engineering computing, said Boeing is trying to assess how to make a "quantum step forward in the use of these (computer) tools, based on what we've learned and what we know we can do with them."
Machines can do some kinds of work with a speed and consistency that humans can't match. One examples the 757's hydraulic tubing, bend to shape by machines which turn out identical results every time.
These changes portend a shift in the labor force toward white-collar workers.
"Now one of two workers at Renton are blue-collar," Robison said. "In 20 years, based on our increases in productivity, that might be one in 20."
Boeing's manufacturing success is built on ever-improving productivity, the art and science of doing more and more with less and less.
The object is to save the company as much money as possible and keep its costs competitive, by automation and getting more work out of people per hour.
"Running the business is a simple thing, " said Malcolm Stamper, Boeing's president. "You just try to be as productive as possible."
The airplane industry is highly competitive, with manufacturers clawing at each other with low-ball offers to airlines. Boeing management believes the company's future depends on keeping up its manufacturing efficiency.
"If you don't build as efficiently as you can, you can't compete in the world," Stamper said. "You either have to work faster or use more mechanical advantages."
Despite a reputation among some of its employees as an easy place to be lazy, Boeing is renowned for its productivity. One recent chronicler of the aircraft industry, John Newhouse, refers to "Boeing's astonishing productivity" which gives it the "ability to assemble airliners faster than any competitor in the world."
Although robotics are being used increasingly at Boeing, skilled an experienced employees remain the key to productivity. Every airplane is assembled a little more efficiently than the one before, and Boeing depends on employees to move toward lower manufacturing costs.
There is speculation that Seattle's relative geographic isolation has been a major factor in Boeing's success. Unlike southern California, aerospace workers here cannot easily move to competing aerospace firms, and employees tend to stick with Boeing - unless they get laid off.
The company is constantly adjusting the size of its workforce and layoffs are viewed as an unpleasant consequence of remaining productive. But layoffs also can damage productivity, because the company loses experienced workers.
"Every time we have to lay off somebody, we're sending a good guy out the door. No question about it," said Joe Sutter, a Boeing vice president.
"We don't like to do that, for two reasons. Some of them are going down to other areas where they can get work. They take all that Boeing training away with them. But we just hate to have to do that to them, too."
Stamper said it pains him when Boeing lays of f thousands of workers. "I was hungry as a kid because my old man worked in an auto plant in Detroit. When he got laid off I didn't eat."
The move toward automation concerns union leaders, but they say it's inevitable.
"How can you resist it?" asked Robert Bradford, executive director of the Seattle Professional Engineering Employees Association (SPEEA). "It's like the flood. My concern is we have to manage it."
"I don't think there's any way of thinking union representation can oppose new technology," said Tom Baker, president of the local Aeromechanics Union. "that's unrealistic. New technology is on the way, but the union needs to get the employer to look at it in a responsible way."
Bradford and Baker, who between them represent the engineers and technicians who design the 757 and the mechanics who assemble it, say Boeing is not forthright enough about its intentions regarding automation and other issues. The company may not want to tip its hand for competitive reasons, but Boeing employees have a legitimate need to know what the future may hold, they say.
"There are going to be different jobs and fewer of them, and more competition for them," Bradford said. He and Baker believe employees must be trained for the increasingly automated future.
Boeing has a responsibility to work with the unions to keep technology an ally of its employees, not an enemy, the union leaders suggested.
"Technology is what's creating the productivity. We're working smarter," Bradford said. A calculator is said to allow an engineer to work with 20 times the efficiency of a slide rule, and it may be that computers are creating similar gains over calculators, he said.
Boeing attempts to promote productivity with a variety of programs. For instance, it pays an employee up to $10,000 for a cost-saving suggestion. In 1982, 22,000 employees submitted 51,000 suggestions and the company paid $4.3 million in rewards.
One employee, Tom King, has averaged $1,000 a month in extra take-home pay by making cost-saving suggestions on the 757 program - more than 180 separate suggestions since the beginning of 1982.
"Employee involvement is a key to the process of change," said John Black, productivity manager for the 757 program. "Responsive change maintains our competitive edge to improve productivity. And improved productivity means greater profit, more jobs and a higher standard of living."
Black said the first thing he did when he took charge of productivity planning on the 757 program in 1979 was examine what he calls "the Boeing culture."
"We spent quite a while looking at what the Japanese are doing, what the west Europeans are doing. And their culture. And recognizing that we're not going to bring the Japanese culture over here and we're not going to bring west European culture here. We have our own culture within the Boeing Co."
An important element of Boeing's culture, Black said, is cooperation between management and the workforce on issues of productivity. It's a non-adversarial relationship, he said.
Bradford and Baker agreed this is largely true, but cautioned that Boeing needs better communication with unions and should plan more openly. "I think we may begin butting heads over automation," Bradford said.
The Boeing workforce is changing as society changes, Black said. The methods by which employees can be motivated are changing as traditional values and institutions change.
"Twenty years ago, the average education of the blue-collar hourly employee in the (Boeing) factory was eight-grade. Today it's a year of college," Black said.
The percentage of minority and female workers is growing. The average employee age is 41 and growing older as layoffs reduce the ranks of younger workers.
"We have to understand that we're going to have to do things differently," Black said.
One innovation imported from Japan and used in the 757 program is the "quality circle," in which small groups of employees meet with management and discuss possible improvements and cost savings for the company and ways to improve morale among workers. A productivity technique used with increasing frequency it was first adopted in this country by Lockheed, a Boeing competitor.
Pride in the company and its airplanes must be maintained, said Back, who is enthusiastically proud of both. He even wrote a country-Western song, "757 Fly," which he calls "a statement of Boeing culture."
The company had the song recorded in Los Angeles. It goes like this:
"757 fly, where angel fear to go. The Boeing people build them best, best is all we know ... Well this airplane company seems to have a hold on me. We'll be building Boeings until the end of time ... "
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